We should now consider candidates’ governing qualities

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Amid the Democratic presidential debates over ideology, ideas and experience, each hopeful cites qualities that separates them and would enable them to more effectively govern.

What qualities to look for in electing a president is an elusive subject. Historian Dories Kearns Goodwin lists six “essential traits” a president needs: empathy, resilience, communications skills, openness to different views, impulse control and an ability to relax.

Overarching all these, I believe, is self-security, being comfortable with who you are.

Most of the Democratic contenders possess some of these traits, which seems more relevant than the distinguishing governing characteristics they cite; they include:

Joe Biden: The former Vice President says more than anyone he’ll be able to alleviate the poisonous partisanship in Congress, that after Trump the Republican party will be more reasonable and open to compromise.

Biden had a long record as an excellent legislator working with many Republicans as diverse as John McCain and Jesse Helms, whom he persuaded to support funding for the United Nations and to confirm Richard Holbrooke as UN Ambassador.

But this isn’t your father’s Republican party. In the Obama-Biden administration, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) saw his job as obstructing. The 2012 deal the Vice President and McConnell reached on extending part of the Bush tax cuts wasn’t a very good one.

This won’t change, and it’s even more poisonous in the House, where Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) always is peering over his right shoulder. The most important figure in the caucus will be Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) who won’t let McCarthy stray. (Unless Jordan gets ensnared in the Ohio State scandal in which wrestlers were sexually assaulted by the team physician when Jordan was an assistant wrestling coach.)

Trump’s makeover of the Republican party won’t end next January, whether he’s reelected or not.

Pete Buttigieg: The 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Ind., says his election would change American politics by ushering in a “new generation” of political leaders who “can help heal a divided nation.” His youthful intelligence has made him the surprise star of this contest.

But it will be of limited value if he is the President.

This sense of a “new generation of leaders” hasn’t much permeated Congress — especially the Senate — among either Republicans or Democrats.

This message echoes that of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barack Obama. We celebrate those Presidents and their vitality; it didn’t, however, enhance their ability to govern.

Michael Bloomberg: The billionaire businessman and former New York City Mayor extols his talents and experience as a manager; in a debate, pointing to the others, he bragged that he was the only one who had started a business.

Yet managerial expertise is not associated with the greatness of Lincoln or FDR. “Management is not a word we usually think of when we talk about presidential leadership,” notes Ellen Fitzpatrick, a Presidential scholar at the University of New Hampshire.

Still, she adds that having served as a governor has often been seen as fitting preparation for the presidency: “That’s less about management skills that a mayor or business executive might have than it is about leading a state which presumably is quite varied and requires outstanding and broad leadership abilities.”

This is a Bloomberg’s calling card, leadership not management.

It matters that a president pick good managers for key posts, for example: John Koskinen who managed the Y2K potential crisis at the beginning of the century, or Jeff Zients who straightened out the screwed up roll-out of Obamacare.

Bernie Sanders: The Vermont Socialist believes his radical agenda would be enacted by the energy and demands of an historic grass roots movement. One supporter has predicted the resistance movement will be in the streets on Bernie’s Inaugural Day.

Other presidents have vowed to go over the heads of elected politicians to rally rank and file voters — but those voters generally have elected those politicians. For Sanders, this might fly in deep blue or ultra-liberal venues; it won’t where it would be most necessary: conservative strongholds.

A fallback for some of his supporters is that he can get change, even if it’s not the big stuff. That’s a heck of a message: Vote for bold change even though we know it won’t occur.

Elizabeth Warren: Warren has a similar radical agenda and going-over-the-heads case, with a variation: Unlike Bernie, she does the hard work to actually enact bold change. Her favorite example is the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection bureau.

This was her baby, and she deserves enormous credit. But its enactment only was possible due to the active support of President Obama and a heavily Democratic Congress. As president, the Massachusetts Democrat’s diligence and perseverance would count for little without comparable advantages.

As for Amy Klobuchar, we can revisit her if she’s still around in a few weeks.

In evaluating these men and women the character traits cited by Goodwin are important, and especially how comfortable they are in their own skin, to reach out. Who might follow the examples of President-elect Ronald Reagan, who tapped his primary opponent’s campaign manager, Jim Baker, as his chief of staff — or Barack Obama, who appointed his rival, Hillary Clinton, to be Secretary of State?

No matter how well they pass these tests, any new Democratic president will be able to govern effectively only if he or she brings a Democratic congress with them.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags 2020 Democratic candidates Amy Klobuchar Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Jim Jordan Joe Biden John McCain Kevin McCarthy Michael Bloomberg Mitch McConnell Pete Buttigieg South Carolina primary Super Tuesday

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