Most of us wouldn’t put ourselves in the hands of a pilot who’s never flown or a dentist who’s never drilled. Yet American voters don’t use this thought process when picking their president, the person whose job it is to serve as commander-in-chief of the military and CEO of a multitrillion-dollar economy.
Americans have taken to preferring candidates whose resumes are long on politics but short on the kind of military or executive business experience that should be required of a president.
In 2008, voters looked past John McCain’s extensive military service to elect Barack Obama, who had never served in uniform. In 2012, voters reelected Obama despite opponent Mitt Romney’s experience founding and managing Bain Capital.
The trend appears likely to continue, given the current list of front-running candidates in New Hampshire. The top-tier candidates, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Republicans Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, can claim no military service. And while they collectively have nearly a century of public sector experience, only Bush and Clinton claim any real history of work in the private sector; although, with Bush mostly in commercial real estate and Clinton as a lawyer, it’s not the type of business leadership required to run the country.
There is an exception in Donald Trump, a businessman who never worked in the public sector and who is currently in second place behind Bush in New Hampshire. But he isn’t being taken seriously by voters, who see him as a reality television star instead of a world leader. Voters seem bent on finding a politician for the job.
It’s not that serving in the public sector isn’t noble. It is. But people who make politics a career observe life through the insulated walls of government. They are informed about real-world issues by donors and special interest groups. Their salaries are paid by taxpayers. They never have to fear not getting a paycheck or not being able to afford the next health insurance premium payment.
Career politicians also lack private sector accountability. For them, success equates to doing what it takes to stay in office. The need for self-preservation makes going along to get along the name of their game. Taking risks for the collective good is an occupational hazard. In contrast, it’s part of the day-to-day job description of an entrepreneurial businessperson or a military officer.
Despite a recent Gallup poll showing voters overwhelmingly rank the economy and terrorism among their biggest concerns heading into 2016, it’s still likely that the next person we choose as president will hail more from the hallowed halls of public office than a boardroom or a battlefield. We need to raise our standards.
Past generations were able to pull a lever for leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan — all of whom proudly served their country in uniform before serving in the Oval Office. Now, instead, we’re faced with candidates who earn their political stripes working their way up the ballot and charming the public on late night television.
It’s just not the same thing.
Meredith Warren is a Republican political analyst and consultant. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.