A voter’s guide to evaluating presidential candidates
The first Democratic debates raise the question of what voters should be looking for in evaluating candidates. Rather than merely supporting a candidate because of their promises (often unrealistic) and how closely their policy positions pass the litmus test of party purity, there are three broad areas that should help inform the decisions of Americans as we make the all-important choice of who should occupy the Oval Office come January 20, 2021.
First, voters should look closely at the substance of the candidates. Certainly, part of substance relates to the plans and ideas the candidate has about how to govern and address both domestic and international challenges.
It is all too easy for candidates to promise simplistic answers without a plan to pay for it or practically implement it. At the other end of the spectrum are candidates who promise nothing specific, and offer only a spell-binding performance devoid of substance. Americans should be cautious of both extremes.
Focusing only on issues fails to recognize the president is not an all-powerful king who can dictate and immediately implement their vision for America. Thus, plans, promises and programs by themselves are illusory in a system with three co-equal branches of government without the political skills to listen and engage in a conversation with those with opposing viewpoints and craft compromise legislation.
President Obama reflected on his realization that the power of the presidency is limited. “What I didn’t fully appreciate,” he noted in 2015, “…is how decentralized power is in this system.”
“A lot of the work is not just identifying the right policy but now constantly building…ever-shifting coalitions to be able to actually implement and execute and get it done,” he added.
Rather than simply cheering on the agenda of a candidate, we must also evaluate competence and pragmatism.
We should evaluate the basic competence and executive abilities of the candidates to manage a large bureaucracy. Eloquent and inspirational candidates who lack substantial experience in the difficult art of governing and an understanding of the complexities of the federal government and the volatile world are ill-suited to occupy the Oval Office. But experience alone, without other critical attributes, does not equate to substance.
The presidency is a tough job and demands a high level of competence. President Lyndon Johnson knew this. He wrote that “the magnitude of the job dwarfs every man who aspires to it. Every man who occupies the position has to strain to the utmost of his ability to fill it.”
Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, once astutely observed that “you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” So, while the poetic promises or angry prophecy of the campaign trail may stir voters with hopes of simplistic solutions and beneficial entitlements in their lives, it’s important to elect not just a poet but a pragmatist.
Our challenge is that we live in a polarized and pluralistic nation. The business of governing involves a president who recognizes the role of government is to temper the desires and agendas of conflicting interest groups to create a “more perfect union.”
The president must recognize, as President Harry Truman did, that “I’m everybody’s president,” and not just the president of those who voted for him.
So, while we’re right to be interested in a candidate’s position on policy issues, but we must also evaluate their basic competence and look for candidates who have the capacity to govern in pragmatic prose.
Second, voters should evaluate the style of the candidates. While there are many elements of style, two opposing and overarching themes often dominate the campaign trail: fear and hope.
President Trump ran on a platform of fear and stirred up the anger of voters for whom the American dream seemed to be evaporating. Fear of lost jobs, falling behind economically, and the presence of people who look, speak and worship differently made immigration a hot button issue, and fueled Trump’s rise to power with the angry chant of “build the wall.” His campaign worked and drove enough people to the polls in key states that he was able to eke out an Electoral College victory.
By contrast, Obama appealed to the “better angels of our nature” in his hope-based 2008 campaign that propelled him into the White House. “Yes, we can” not only win but create a better and more inclusive America. It was the confident chant of Obama’s supporters.
What is the style of the current crop of candidates from both parties? Do they inspire us with their soaring rhetoric of hope, optimism? Or do they suck us into the gutter with their fear and hate-based campaign? Or do they instead campaign only based on a soulless technocratic policy vision?
Finally, voters would be well-served to look beyond the hype of campaigning to ask two additional questions. Does the candidate have a reasonable chance of success in winning the general election in November 2020? Is the candidate likely to be successful in governing wisely?
The fiery campaign rhetoric of a progressive or conservative may mobilize the party faithful to cheer loudly and vote enthusiastically in the primaries— but is less likely to result in a winning general election campaign.
Ultimately, beyond the substance, style and electability of a candidate, voter need to discern whether their presidential hopeful has the capacity to govern effectively. It’s one thing to dogmatically promise the world in a campaign. It’s quite another to compromise and forge consensus that moves the nation forward., even if not as quickly as some would like, and faster than others desire.
In evaluating the capacity of a candidate to govern, their success will be more dependent on their character and leadership skills than on the correctness of their positions.
At the end of the day, we should pay attention to the substance of candidates, their style and their likelihood for success.
And then we hope for the best. President Harry Truman once wrote, “you never can tell what’s going to happen to a man until he gets to a place of responsibility…You’ve just got to pick the man you think is best on the basis of his past history and the views he expresses on present events and situations, and then you sit around and do a lot of hoping and if you’re inclined that way, a certain amount of praying.”
Mike Purdy is a presidential historian and the author of recently published “101 Presidential Insults: What They Really Thought About Each Other – and What It Means to Us.” He is the founder of PresidentialHistory.com.