The Ted Cruz debate: When is a candidate qualified to run for president?

Ted Cruz is a first-term Senator with no executive experience, kind of like Barack Obama was in 2008. That inexperience has hurt Obama. It would likely hurt Cruz, too.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, his wife Heidi, and their two daughters Catherine, 4 (l.), and Caroline, 6 (r.), wave on stage after he announced his campaign for president, Monday at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s announcement Monday that he was entering the race for the Republican nomination for president has raised some interesting questions about what it means to say that a person is or is not “qualified” to be president of the United States.

Speaking strictly from the perspective of the requirements set forth in the Constitution, of course, it is clear that Senator Cruz is legally qualified to serve in the office he is seeking. He is over 35 years of age, he has been a resident of the United States for at least the past 14 years, and, notwithstanding the fact that he was born in Canada, he is a “natural born citizen.” 

Many times when people refer to “qualification” in this context, though, they are talking about much more than the bare legal requirements for the position. After all, under that standard Sarah Palin was qualified to be president when John McCain selected her to be his running mate in 2008 even though it quickly became apparent that she would have been nowhere near prepared to fulfill the demands of that position if fate had required her to do so. Therefore, when we’re talking about qualifications in this context, we’re really talking about something more ephemeral than bare legal requirements, namely the question of whether or not a particular candidate has the experience and skills necessary to be president.

Both in 2008 and continuing right through today, many Republicans make precisely this argument about President Obama – that his resume prior to running for president was paper-thin and displayed none of the kind of experience one would hope to see in a president, specifically executive experience and experience dealing with a legislature.

One could also make the argument that the past six years justify this argument to at least some extent given that Mr. Obama has shown a distinct inability to deal with Congress, no matter which party it was controlled by, doesn’t seem to be all that interesting in trying to craft agreements with the opposition, and has not run an executive branch that has been very good at either get its message across or getting its job done. Indeed, the Obama administration has been markedly bad in all of these areas compared with either the Clinton or Bush 43 administrations, both of which were headed by men who had served as governors prior to becoming president.

On the partisan side, though, Barack Obama’s lack of experience has become something of an article of faith on the right, which is why it’s interesting to see Commentary’s John Steele Gordon argue that, like Obama, conservatives should recognize that Cruz is not qualified to be President:

1) Executive experience. He has very little. He was director of the office of policy planning at the Federal Trade Commission and associate deputy attorney general in the early years of the George W. Bush administration. He served as solicitor general of Texas for five years (2003 to 2008) and thus has more experience than President Obama. But that’s not saying much. He was only a cog in the administrative machine. I imagine that the solicitor general of Texas presides over an office small enough for him to know everyone in it. Going from there to the presidency is a bit like going from executive officer of a destroyer to Chief of Naval Operations in one leap.

2) Legislative experience. Again, Cruz’s experience is very thin. He’s been a senator from Texas for a little over two years. He has not been in a leadership position. Indeed he has often defied the leadership of his party.

3) Foreign affairs experience. Like Obama, Cruz has none.

4) Education. Here Cruz has it all over Obama. They both had Ivy League educations, but Cruz graduated cum laude from Princeton and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. Obama’s grades are state secrets, a pretty good indication that they are not impressive, as he is not exactly the type to hide his light under a bushel. We do know he received no honors upon graduation. While Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review, he published nothing in it. Cruz was primary editor there and was executive editor at the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, and a founding editor of the Harvard Latino Law Review. After graduation, Cruz clerked for Circuit Court Judge J. Michael Luttig, and then for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a very high honor in the legal profession.

5) Negotiating skills. Like Obama, Cruz doesn’t seem to have any and no desire to use them if he did. He’s a bomb-thrower and an ideologue, insisting on touchdowns or nothing rather than moving the ball down the field.

Leaving aside Mr. Steele’s comments about the education issue, which I find to be utter nonsense for the most part, his point is pretty clear, and it’s similar to one that I made yesterday in some exchanges I had with people who seemed to be thrilled by the idea of Cruz running for president. If there was something problematic with a first-term senator with no executive experience in 2008, then why would it be a good thing in 2016?

Even asking the question, of course, assumes that there was ever anything intellectually honest about the arguments about Obama’s experience that were being made in 2008. Given the fact that the person running against Obama had no executive experience either and that his running mate was demonstrating on a daily basis her lack of ability for any position of national responsibility, it’s hard to conclude otherwise.

Despite this, I think there is merit to the idea that candidates with thin resumes and, most importantly, no executive experience should be viewed skeptically when they throw their hats into the ring for president. The thin résumé is relevant because it gives us very little basis upon which to judge what kind of president the candidate in question might be, how they would approach complex issues of foreign or domestic policy, and whether or not their judgment can be trusted when it comes to making the many decisions that a president has to make on a regular basis.

Executive experience is relevant because, while being a governor, vice president, general in the military, or cabinet secretary is not exactly the same as being president of the United States, these positions do involve the same sort of skills and duties that a president performs. Someone who has never held such a position in their entire life should arguably have to make a strong case for why they should essentially be given on the job training in the Oval Office.

Given that, a candidate that has both a thin résumé and no executive experience is arguably not sufficiently prepared for the tasks that a president has to perform and should be passed over in favor of better qualified candidates.

Other abilities are arguably also relevant to a president’s job, of course. In today’s age, the ability to be a strong public speaker and spokesperson for one’s agenda is certainly an important part of the job, as is the ability to project the kind of leadership that Americans and others in the world expect from the president of the United States.

Some may argue in favor of other characteristics that are less easy to measure, such as “compassion.” Additionally, even the most skilled and qualified person in the world may not be the right candidate for you if they hold positions that you fundamentally disagree with, though. Leaving aside the issues, though, it certainly seems as though a candidate’s experience ought to be a relevant concern when a political party is choosing a nominee.

The 2016 race looks as though it will see one of the largest Republican fields we’ve seen in quite some time. There will be current and former governors running for office, as well as other senators like Cruz, and with minor exceptions they are going to agree with each other far more than they disagree.

Given that, it seems to me as though Republicans would be well advised to choose a nominee who has a record that shows that they have the skills necessary to be president, rather than a guy who is only two years into his first term in the senate. Beyond the mere legal requirements, it certainly does not appear that Cruz is qualified to be president.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at

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