The next presidential campaign cycle may be the one when the informal rules about age and experience are rewritten — and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
We might see the first contest between two people who had no previous experience as a candidate before running for the nation’s top political post: Donald Trump versus Oprah Winfrey. Or Trump versus former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
We could see the oldest match-up ever. Trump, who was 70 in 2016, is already the longest tooth ever elected to a first term. In 2020, the then-74-year-old incumbent could face a 79-year-old Bernie Sanders. Or a 77-year-old Joe Biden. Or a 76-year-old John Kerry. Or even, possibly, an 82-year-old Jerry Brown.
We could also see the first race between two candidates who came to widespread household attention as TV personalities: again, Trump v. Winfrey. Or the first face-off between two men who hail from the business world: Trump and Schultz.
Any of that would be a break with tradition, but perhaps nowhere as much as the move away from nominating professional politicians. Time was, politics was considered a craft that required some workplace experience. Thus people chosen as party nominees tended to be those who had shown themselves able at some aspect of public life.
One early avenue to the presidency ran from the secretary of state’s post; James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams all went from that office directly to the presidency.
But governors, the closest parallel to presidents as elected executives, soon became the turn-to folks for party nominations. Generals were another handy option, partly because they (supposedly) knew how to lead, partly because even the mediocre among them could be puffed up as heroes.
With America’s rise to leader of the Western world and the onset of the Cold War, having some foreign policy experience became an increasing concern for candidates. Thus John Kennedy, as a senator, angled for a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the better to establish some foreign policy bona fides, while Richard Nixon highlighted his eight years at Dwight Eisenhower’s elbow.
Still, even in the Cold War era, two men came to office with no such grounding: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. (One time-honored tactic for a candidate light on experience was to talk tough about the Soviets and accuse the other side of being weak or bumbling there.)
But with the dissolution of the USSR, foreign policy experience was devalued. Indeed, as Barack Obama and Trump have demonstrated, political experience itself doesn’t seem to matter much to voters anymore.
Yet the old norms had some logic to them. Take age: A decline in mental acuity may start earlier, but it becomes more pronounced in one’s 60s and 70s. Or political experience: Politics is complex and tricky, particularly in such a polarized era. Given that, it certainly helps to have some knowledge of the way things work, some grounding in policy, some sense of what’s realistic and what’s not, some experience in the art of getting things done in a fractious system.
When it comes to foreign policy, we’ve seen that with a solid team, a president with no foreign policy experience can comport himself competently on the international stage. Witness Reagan and Bill Clinton. On the other hand, a president with a better sense of the world might have avoided George W. Bush’s mistakes. And Trump, a man with scant knowledge of international complexities, a reductionist and transactional view of foreign policy, a lack of forbearance, and a weak team has certainly undermined America’s standing in the world.
There is no perfect solution to any of this, of course. But these are matters that both the media and the voters need to pay more attention to in 2020 than they have in the recent past.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.