Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, is campaigning hard for Republican candidates this fall. News reports indicate that she might be pondering a race for the White House in 2016. And she is not the only nonpolitician who is eying the real estate at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Ben Carson, a famous surgeon and author who has a big following among Christian conservatives, has started a political action committee that could be the launching pad for a presidential campaign.
Do they really think that they have a chance? It’s easy to see why. According to a recent survey, 79 percent of Americans are “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the political system. They are disillusioned with both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Only 14 percent say that they have “high” or “very high” confidence in state officeholders, and members of Congress have the confidence of just 8 percent, one point below car salespeople. With politicians faring so poorly in the public eye, nonpoliticians might reckon that lack of background in elected office is actually an asset.
There’s just one hitch. Not since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 have Americans elected a president or vice president without such experience. In the 62 years since, other electoral novices have sometimes sought the top job, but they have always fallen well short. There are good reasons for this pattern.
Running for office requires particular skills, and success in other fields does not necessarily carry over to the campaign trial. Consider retired Gen. Wesley Clark. On paper, he was a dream candidate: West Point valedictorian, Rhodes Scholar, combat veteran of Vietnam with a Silver Star, White House Fellow, commander in chief of the US European Command. But after he announced his candidacy for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, he bobbled questions that an experienced politician could easily have anticipated. Would he have voted for the Iraq War? "I don't know if I would have or not,” he said. “Mary, help!” he called to his press secretary, when reporters bore in. “Come back and listen to this.” He got a little better over time, but never quite got the hang of presidential politics, and his campaign fizzled.
In other words, his résumé was great but he flunked the job interview.
Even very famous people are often unready for the scrutiny that comes with a presidential race. Billionaire H. Ross Perot had first gained national attention in 1969, when he tried to bring Christmas presents to American prisoners of war in Vietnam. In 1992, he initially got a great deal of support when he announced his campaign for the presidency as an independent. At one point, he even ran ahead of both Gov. Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush. But then his eccentricities came to light, and he became unhinged. Among other things, he accused Republicans of a bizarre plot to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. He defiantly underscored his oddness with his choice of an official campaign song: Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Though he ended up with a substantial share of the popular vote, he did not win a single electoral vote.
Presidential-level scrutiny can also turn up dirty laundry. In the 2012 campaign, former restaurateur Herman Cain briefly led the field of GOP presidential candidates. He started to lose altitude as the debates showed that he knew little about issues other than health care. His campaign crashed when the press reported claims of sexual harassment and adultery.
In a 2016 campaign, Ms. Fiorina would have one advantage: Like Cain (who ran for Senate in 2004), she has sought office before. In 2010, she ran for the US Senate in California against Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer. During a great year for Republicans nationwide, however, Fiorina lost by a million votes. Though no salacious bombshells exploded in that race, Democrats effectively used Fiorina’s corporate record against her, accusing her of laying off thousands of workers while buying a yacht for herself. If she thinks that the “heartless rich person” theme has lost its potency, she should have a word with Mitt Romney.
Dr. Carson does not have a corporate record, but he does have a penchant for saying strange things. Earlier this year, for instance, he claimed that the current state of our government is “very much like Nazi Germany.” When a candidate plays the Hitler card, many voters will think that he’s not playing with a full deck.
Perhaps an experienced politician would be the worst possible choice for a presidential candidate – except for the alternative.
Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.