Richard Cohen: When it comes to the top job, experience matters
WASHINGTON — Joe Biden is mulling a run for the White House. Beto O'Rourke is also mulling one, and maybe mulling as well why he initially said he wouldn't run. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is for some reason also mulling a presidential run, and so is Stacey Abrams, who was apparently on some sort of mulling binge — governor of Georgia, senator from that state or president of the United States. On Monday she postponed her presidential decision until 2028, but then, apparently mulling some more, she later tweeted, "Now 2020 is definitely on the table." This is a mull too far.
NOT AN ENTRY-LEVEL JOB
Many of the Democratic candidates or mullers are personifications of the contemporary phenomenon that the presidency can be an entry-level job. Certainly that's the case with Donald Trump, who held no previous political position and has gone on to shred any belief in the gifted amateur. Some will even cite Barack Obama, whose experience was scanty, but who had been a U.S. senator and was widely recognized as a unique and gifted politician. Like him or not, Obama — as he would be glad to tell you — was special.
Now, though, the Democratic field is clotted with candidates who have the name recognition of Albanian dentists. I offer you Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. She is clearly a formidable woman — an Army National Guard officer, among other things — but what she has done in Congress of national import is beyond not only me, but Google as well. Or Julian Castro, a well-regarded former mayor of San Antonio who served as Obama's secretary of housing and urban development, but who nevertheless still lacks what used to be called presidential timber.
Much of the rest of the field is similar. Some, like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, now stand out, but not at all in the one area where presidential authority is absolute: foreign affairs. Only Biden has that credential. As for the others, they are blessedly inexperienced in the one area in which instantaneous decisions can lead to war or some other debacle.
Two recent presidents come to mind. The first is George W. Bush, a genial man who was totally out of his depth in the White House. His decision to go to war in Iraq was calamitous, costing 4,423 American lives, 31,957 wounded and extending Iranian influence throughout the region. Less calamitous, but still serious, was Obama's refusal to enforce his "red line" demarche when Syrian forces used chemical weapons on rebel-held areas of Damascus. Even before that, Obama refused to intervene in the Syrian civil war, when moderates still had a chance. Now, Bashar Assad is triumphant, a client of the Russians and Iranians.
THE JFK YARDSTICK
Inevitably, Democratic presidential candidates measure themselves against John. F. Kennedy. The comparison comes up with Beto O'Rourke, although in his case, Robert F. Kennedy is more prominently mentioned. Both Kennedys were young, John being only 43 when he took the oath. He was the youngest man elected president, succeeding Dwight D. Eisenhower, age 70, who was then the oldest serving president in history. For that reason, Kennedy made youth a campaign theme.
But the youthful Kennedy had already served in both the House and Senate. He was also a combat veteran of World War II, a genuine hero of unquestioned bravery, and the author of two books, one of them, "Why England Slept," on foreign policy. With the exception of Biden, no one in the race can approach Kennedy's foreign policy experience.
As we are seeing now, Congress and the courts can slow a president's domestic agenda. (If you doubt that, go visit Trump's wall.) But foreign affairs is a different matter. The president has vast authority, and what he lacks, an indifferent Congress has granted him. (Tariffs, for instance.) I want someone with some experience under the belt, at the least someone who has done some reading in the field.
I met Abrams at a small dinner some months ago. I found her keenly smart and downright personable, but I did not then recognize her as a political innovator, someone who could be seen as able to fill any office from standing start. She is already looking forward to the presidency while all she has done is serve in the Georgia legislature and come close to winning the governorship. As with O'Rourke and some others, her resume is not what she has done, but her very being.
The Democratic Party ought to take Trump not only as a foe, but as a lesson. Experience matters.
Richard Cohen writes for The Washington Post.
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