Separating the Presidential Wheat from the Chaff

Just what does it mean for someone to be qualified to be, or even run for, president? I thought of that question when watching this interview on Fox News Sunday with Ben Carson, who is preparing to be the first member of what we might call the nutball caucus of the 2016 Republican primaries, occupied last time around by Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and to a lesser extent (since he was actually briefly competitive) Rick Santorum. I've always found Carson to be a puzzlement. On one hand, he was a highly successful neurosurgeon, and you can't become that without being a relatively smart person. On the other hand, when he talks about politics and policy, it quickly becomes clear that the man is a complete lunatic.

In this interview, Wallace asks him, "You said recently that you thought that there might not actually be elections in 2016 because of widespread anarchy. Do you really believe that?" Carson responds, "I hope that that's not going to be the case, but certainly there is that potential." Then there's this:

You and I are friends, I have great regard for you, and we've had this question I'm about to ask you we've talked about in private, but after looking at Barack Obama, and what's happened with his lack of political experience over this last six years, wouldn't putting Ben Carson in the Oval Office be akin to putting a politician in an operating room and having him perform one of your brain surgeries?

It's a reasonable question (which Carson answers about how you'd expect, by talking about the Founding Fathers). One of my (many) hobbyhorses is the widespread idea that politics isn't a profession that requires knowledge and experience, that, for instance, a corporate CEO who had never run for office would make a superior senator because of all his business sense. But there's another side to this: Is the idea of Ben Carson being president any more absurd than, say, Ted Cruz being president?

Cruz is almost certainly running as well. And though he serves in the United States Senate, it's hard to see how that experience would make him a good president. He hasn't actually wasted any time on legislating; his job is almost entirely a platform for him to make speeches and get on TV. I'm sure someone is going to ask Cruz a variant of the question Wallace asked Carson, since Barack Obama also ran for president in his first term in the Senate. It'll be interesting to hear his response, because Republicans have invested heavily in a narrative that says the things they don't like about Obama's presidency are a product of his inexperience and feeble mind (witness their obsession with the idea that Obama is too stupid to make public remarks without a teleprompter).

The truth, however, is that their issues with his presidency are ideological. It's not as though they would have been happier with a Democrat who had a lengthier resume. They just don't like the choices he has made and the agenda he has pursued. What they want isn't an experienced president, it's a Republican president. But they still believe that a big part of their problem with Obama is about his inexperience (even if the biggest part is that he's an Alinskyite socialist trying to destroy America).

In any case, as the 2016 race gets going, journalists are going to have to draw the line between serious and non-serious candidates somewhere. In 2012, there were 30 Republicans on the ballot in the New Hampshire primary, but you only heard about 10 of them, because they were the ones who were senators, members of the House, or governors (current or former). While that criterion is far from perfect, it has the benefit of being easy to apply objectively. Reporters don't have to sit around debating whether candidate A, despite being a senator, is a complete nincompoop who has no chance of winning, and whether candidate B, who has not held elected office, is actually a brilliant person with a deep understanding of Washington's ways and lots of interesting ideas.

However, if you can somehow achieve a measure of fame, like Herman Cain did in 2012, you can also be considered a "real" candidate, but you'll still be treated as an oddity who has to constantly justify why anyone should pay attention to you. That's the category Carson will fall into (which didn't stop the Wall Street Journal from running an editorial last year entitled "Ben Carson For President," so smitten were they with him because he attacked President Obama at a prayer breakfast both attended). But some other people who ought to receive the same kind of skepticism probably won't.