The Ascendancy of the Presidential Novice | Joseph Prebble
At about this time of year the British media would usually begin to take a more pronounced interest in the presidential election over the pond. As it is, we have more pressing – and tragic – circumstances to manage. The only politics the country is much interested in is some sideshow over a naughty government advisor while corpses pile up and countless businesses fold. The media cannot ignore the race for long, however, especially as the conventions approach. As it is, the Democrats’ choice to take on President Trump is longtime Washington hand Joe Biden, but a process that admitted at various times to a debate stage six candidates who had never held national office, plus a smattering more who’d never risen higher than the House, entertained the potential of a Presidential novice more seriously than any Democratic contest in living memory.
The surprise candidate this year was former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, one of the most vapid hopefuls to run for office in America’s recent history. Light on distinguishing policy and heavy on soundbites, all the hours spent trying to mould the McKinsey consultant turned unremarkable mayor into a neo-Obama were given short shrift by voters after the opening couple of states. Nonetheless, he won the dog’s breakfast that was the Iowa caucus, only the second Democrat with no governing or Washington experience (after Jesse Jackson) to reach double figures in the state since it began voting in 1972.
Perhaps it wasn’t the right year for an outsider, but it shouldn’t mean there is no place for them in the race. Andrew Yang, surely the most interesting among the Democratic field, may not have even intended to win, but pushed the idea of a universal basic income into the mainstream. As a newbie to Democratic politics, he brought a welcome corrective to the party’s progressive orthodoxy, forgiving rather than cancelling SNL comedian Shane Gillis who used a racial slur against him and expressing a hope to ‘get back to the point where nobody should be celebrating abortion’. An off-piste perspective is perhaps the most essential service and biggest advantage to a political novice. The most obvious example is sitting in the White House right now. Donald Trump was the first President-elect with zero time in political office or the military. As well as the innumerable other factors that contributed to his election, the faith that the American public invested in him was in one sense a test in the capability of an outsider to transform America, or at least capably govern.
His Presidency has not been an uninterrupted disaster. One of his first steps in office was to implement a ban on executive officials lobbying for foreign countries after their stint in government, one small way at least of draining the swamp. By his altogether frightening approach to North Korea he seemed to fluke a most promising advance to denuclearisation and peace with the South than his more cautious predecessors had managed in years. Still, the ultimate outsider has done little to disrupt America’s chronic problems with its deficit, unbalanced approach to the Middle East, and general dysfunction on Capitol Hill. And while he cannot have avoided a nosedive in the economy thank to coronavirus, all his business nous has been useless for lack of any public health experience. Whether this is an experiment the American public would like to repeat remains to be seen. It may be decades before a major party again nominates a political novice. It may not be so long before a novice is selected as the vice Presidential pick. Being a metaphorical heartbeat away from the Presidency, questions of experience and competence apply equally pertinently to the second name on the ticket.
Which brings us to the strange phenomenon of Stacey Abrams. The former Democratic leader within the Georgia House rose to national prominence in the 2018 gubernatorial election in Georgia, the first real threat from the Democrats in decades to swipe a red state slowly becoming purple. In the end she fell just short and famously declined to concede the race, albeit acknowledging that she wouldn’t win. The allegations of voter suppression, but for which she would have won in many observers’ minds, have kindled a sort of righteous fury in the Democrats. In the wake of the race, Abrams set up the organisation Fair Fight Action, intended to ‘encourage voter participation in elections’ and ‘educate voters about elections and their voting rights’. It explicitly aims to assist Democrats, but if its efforts are as good as its aims and carried out objectively, then good on her. It also achieves the third useful purpose of keeping Abrams’s national profile afloat in time for the race for the Veep spot.
To speak of the selection as a race is a new development, but Abrams is quite openly presenting herself as a candidate to be Biden’s running mate. Not content to wait for a phone call from Biden, she has touted herself, bold as brass, as ‘an excellent running mate’, and has criss-crossed television networks to associate herself with the former Vice President as frequently and to as many people as possible. To some, it’s a black woman slicing through systemic disadvantages with a refreshing insistence. To others, a sparsely qualified opportunist making up for lack of national experience with inflated self-confidence.
It would be entirely unfair to whittle her, or anyone else’s, candidacy down to race, but America is a country still cleaning up historical oppression and where the identity of a candidate registers, and some pundits have placed it front and centre of this process. It was a major thread throughout an embarrassingly glitzy profile in the Washington Post, complete with a comparison to ‘a runway supermodel’ and a photoshoot to match. It was the largely African American electorate in the South Carolina primary that swept Biden’s campaign from irrelevance to easy domination (whether a race of such magnitude should be spun on a sixpence by a quarter of a million votes in any state is another question). However, Biden still has a record of praise of segregationists and opposition to federally directed busing so elegantly scrutinised by Senator Kamala Harris.
Meanwhile, her gender at least does not disqualify her a race narrowed since Biden’s promise to pick woman during a debate with rival Bernie Sanders (Biden carries an extensive photographed record of embracing young women rather more closely than a gentleman should). Articles and social media produce a ping pong battle between critics aghast at her self-promotion and newfound fans certain that the reaction is some mix of racism and sexism, her name rising to the top of trends all the while. This would not happen in a sane country with a media that recognised achievement and reported on organic popularity. Her service in the Georgia House is of merit – state politicians are just as important to states as better recognised national representatives – but it is scant qualification for the country’s highest office. As for her supposed brilliance in speech – well, the jury’s out on that one.
If her whistlestop tour of the nation’s cable networks clinches the Vice Presidential spot, congratulations to her. It will set a precedent for how the running mate is selected in future: it will be less of a selection than a contest, formal or informal, rather like how some states elect their lieutenant governors directly. Even if she doesn’t succeed, it may motivate others to try the same approach. A more direct system would not necessarily be a positive, however. The individual responsible for sifting through a shortlist must weigh the options carefully before picking one – or, indeed, himself. The candidate must be meticulously vetted to prevent any October surprises from tireless researchers in the opposition war room. Ideally, the candidate must complement deficiencies in the nominee’s CV. For a decades-long Senator and well travelled Vice President, some governing experience is probably the best way to spruce up the ticket.
So meticulous was the Clinton campaign to get this right that it drew up dozens of names organised into food groups from African Americans and Latinos to the one-element group Bernie Sanders and a set of outsiders. It settled on Tim Kaine, a veteran of Virginia politics who struggled to excite against his opposite number Mike Pence, not least in their debate. With a silky Midwestern drawl and discipline to pivot away from his running mate’s idiocies and deliver effective attacks on his opposite ticket, Pence made Kaine seem talkative and dull. Choosing a reliable but not terribly exciting denizen of the Senate was a choice that will be baked into this cycle’s search for a name.
If the veepstakes do go the way of presidential primaries, we can expect outsiders ever more skilfully converting sudden popularity into a campaign with the longevity to last the campaign season. Some genuine political novices will bring fresh perspectives and skills absent in politics. Still, two consistent deficiencies in American politicians – as here and elsewhere, for that matter – are breadth of political intelligence and an ability to really read the frustrations of the electorate, as Trump so successfully did. It is not clear that a media class that can catapult otherwise unremarkable state politicians into A-list heavyweights with a glossy profile will resolve this. Fortunately, regular debates and good old-fashioned retail politics remain useful tools to weed out charlatans. Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg fared no better when he discovered that his money can’t buy him a convincing debate performance. Blue-mouthed former Congressman Robert O’Rourke was covered generously by Vanity Fair, but all his goading of gun owners and threats to Churches that taught differently to his definition of marriage never propelled him beyond a few points in national polls.
For a non-mainstream candidate to keep donations rolling in and sustain a campaign, they must overcome their deficit of experience of primary politics enjoyed by their rivals in the Senate and governors’ mansions. Neurosurgeon Ben Carson was once neck and neck with Trump in late 2015, but practically fell asleep under the reporters’ cameras. Libertarian-leaning Republican Ron Paul, however, may not have expanded his appeal widely enough in 2008 or 2012, but adeptly rebutted old fossils and war hawks with a solid message of constitutional government and peace, a legacy that persisted. Nobody is making apocalyptic memes featuring Herman Cain’s image today. An outsider with a genuinely unique perspective and the personality to force it into the mainstream is an icon in a nation whose Constitution places no restrictions on the Presidential hopeful except for age, citizenship, and residence. It may not be long before one succeeds again.