Presidential Campaign

How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway?


There’s no doubt people are tired of “gotcha journalism,” where a difficult or trick question is asked of an interviewee to prompt a bad answer and make a scandal of it.

There is also no doubt that those running for office, especially the highest office of president, should know a little bit about the world.

{mosads}Green Party candidate Jill Stein pretty much signed up to join a wing of the Gary Johnson club after she tweeted out a lot of world leaders she supports who aren’t actually the leaders of their respective nations, ironically in an attempt to mock Johnson. 

Stein has clarified that she knows they aren’t national leaders but said she admires “real leaders, not politicians who sell their people out to the global economic elite for power.” So what universe does Stein live in, one where we can redefine our view of who really leads a country based on our beliefs?

Would Stein, if she were president, only meet with like-minded politicians and activists on a foreign visit because of her strong feelings against the elite-appeasing sell-outs actually in charge of whatever given country? 

Libertarian Johnson made media waves in early September when he didn’t recognize what was meant by Aleppo, a city at the epicenter of the ongoing Syrian civil war. He recently followed it up by failing to name a single world leader during a televised town hall with MSNBC host Chris Matthews. His running mate Bill Weld helped him out, but it was a mess.

Presidential candidates making big knowledge gaffes are nothing new and even encyclopedic, well-briefed Hillary Clinton has her share, although she’s more apt to just lie than gaffe, but these latest ones by Johnson and Stein seem to be in a new league. Some kind of farm league called Dude Am I Really Running for President?

There are mistakes and then there are gaps of knowledge and recollection that disqualify somebody from getting near national executive power (after all Johnson already does have executive experience at a state level as the former governor of New Mexico). 

Republican candidate Donald Trump has also had various stunning knowledge gap gaffes for a presidential candidate, particularly on the nuclear triad and Kurds vs. Quds. His nuclear gaffe led Senator Rand Paul to say at the time that Trump had “no clue” about the nuclear triad.

Paul consistently came across as one of the most knowledgeable Republicans during the primary season, and I was impressed by the breadth and specificity of his knowledge particularly on foreign affairs while covering his campaign stops in New Hampshire.

However Paul garnered only minimal momentum during the Republican race as the media storm and public enthusiasm centered on Trump and his rallies. Maybe knowledge and lucid arguments don’t get TV ratings?

That said, even Trump is clearly able to rattle off a number of world leaders he likes or dislikes. Plus, if he had a moment like Johnson he’d likely be savvy enough to cover it by saying something like “Right now, none of them. We have to do better,” or something of the sort, and then deflecting from naming a specific one.

Although a random person out of the phone book might be more likely to name Kim Kardashian than a world leader, with 84 million tuning in to the first presidential debate at Hofstra University it’s clear there’s intense interest among the public in the political process and who will lead, especially this time around.

That’s all to say it’s quite possible the average person off the street could do a better job than Johnson, Stein or Trump at answering a random question about politics or foreign affairs. And that’s actually a pretty scary prospect.

Yes, knowledge only goes so far — being decisive and delegating is a vital skill for a world leader, not being a reigning Jeopardy champion. Sure, advisors and the greater administration can compensate weak points. But, and it’s a big but, a national leader is supposed to have a basic grasp of the world.  

For that matter, people probably should, too.

But the big pressure is on those hoping to lead. Before waxing poetic on grand theories of governance or world stewardship learn about what country is located where and some of the factors at work in different regions. The world doesn’t need more blissful ignorance, especially from those up on a high-horse about their grand ideals but neglecting to look around about what’s going on in the real world.

How can a potential world leader effectively talk policy when their political and geopolitical knowledge itself is operating at a very basic rough-sketch level? That only lets those world leaders who do know what they’re talking about skate circles around the know-nothings,

Why don’t some candidates know basic stuff? It’s a question worth asking, and there may well not be an answer in the form of a current presidential candidate.

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist whose interests include politics, religion, and world news. His website is

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 


Tags 2016 presidential election Donald Trump Gary Johnson Gary Johnson Hillary Clinton Jill Stein Rand Paul
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