Now that it is fairly certain – if anything can be certain in this election cycle – that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will face off in the election, the debate is shifting to the fundamental question of whether or not Trump is even qualified to be president. Aside from complaining about his free-wheeling, bombastic style and simplistic approach to problems, those who have opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump argue that he simply lacks the credentials to be president of the United States. Of course, this raises the obvious question: Exactly what are the qualifications to be president?
There is a clear dichotomy existing in this year’s presidential election. On the one hand you have Hillary Clinton who some argue is the most qualified person to ever run for president. At the same time, there is scant evidence that Trump has the necessary experience, knowledge, temperament or talent needed to be successful as president. Many suggest that Trump may be the least qualified person to ever run for president.
Looking back, Hillary has been on a 40 year campaign to accumulate the credentials that will qualify her to be president. Working either with or in government, she has been a successful lawyer; was sort of a co-president in the White House for eight years observing the activities (well not all of them) of her husband Bill Clinton and then moved on to be a senator and served as Secretary of State under President Obama. During her career Clinton has gained the knowledge and experience as to how government works at the state, federal and international levels. As for Trump, he has spent the past 40 years grubbing for real estate deals, chasing women, running beauty contests and gambling casinos, fighting lawsuits, learning the particulars of divorce and bankruptcy law, promulgating conspiracy theories, doing credit card commercials and starring as a reality TV show host.
If we could take politics and emotion out of the equation (which we can’t) and decide our vote on the basis of which candidate has the most relevant experience and knowledge to take on the rigors and responsibilities of the presidency, the clear choice would be Hillary Clinton. There is only one problem with this approach to picking a president: History has proven that no matter how qualified or unqualified an individual may seem to be, there is no way to really know if a person is qualified to be president until they are president.
Political scientists suggest that the scope, pressures, stress and responsibility of the presidency has become so consuming that no individual – regardless of their experience or knowledge – is qualified to be president when they become president. If so, this triggers a different way to asses a candidate: Does the individual have the capacity to grow into the presidency once elected?
So if not Experience then What?
The fallback position for those who look beyond experience to determine if a person is qualified to be president suggest that “character” should be the determining factor, but that approach has a clear weakness. If Trump and Clinton are judged based on the purity of their character, they both might lose. The truth is that some of our most popular and successful presidents had closets full of character flaws. The truth is that one cannot become president – let alone a successful one – relying on the purity of character. If an individual is not calculating, cunning and ruthless when necessary they are not, by definition, qualified to hold the highest office in the land.
But back to the basic question: Is Trump qualified to be president?
Ronald Reagan is the closest parallel to Trump. As a presidential candidate Reagan was deemed “not ready for prime time.” Reagan’s experience was derided as no more than being a bad actor and a slick salesman. He was a life-long liberal Democrat who claimed to have converted to a conservative Republican. (He was also a well know womanizer.) His campaign theme was to make America once again a “shinning city on upon a hill.” (Sound familiar?) Opponents disparaged as “simplistic” his answers to difficult problems and mocked his single-minded focus on defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War; calling him “a trigger-happy cowboy.”
By most standards – especially among Republicans – Reagan is considered to have been a successful president. Looking back, it turns out that Reagan’s lack of experience was irrelevant and his perceived weaknesses turned out to be his strengths. Because he was not philosophically rigid in his political beliefs he was able to work with and strike deals with even his most ardent opponents. Reagan’s training as a radio personality, actor and pitchman for GE and, of all things, Borax Soap, created the “great communicator” who may have even surpassed Franklin Roosevelt, when it came to selling his message to people. Above all, Reagan’s dogged effort to defeat what he called the “evil empire” and end the Cold War not only appealed to but resonated with the people.
I am not suggesting that Trump is the reincarnation of Reagan, but even his most ardent detractors can’t deny the parallels. Trump was a philosophical Democrat, long before he was a registered Republican. In his business deals he has worked effectively with both Republicans and Democrats. Trump’s campaign theme of “Make America Great Again” is a direct echo of Reagan’s message. When it comes to communicating, marketing, branding and pure huckster salesmanship, no politician alive can match Trump. It is not clear yet, but Trump’s “evil empire” may be his call for “America first” in all areas such as trade, military entanglements, immigration and international relationships. All of these talents were on full display as Trump decimated a large field of “qualified” candidates to improbably win the Republican nomination.
This does not mean that Trump is qualified to be president, let alone a successful one, but it does suggest that in this modern media-centric world, the ability to work with rivals, communicate, market and brand your ideas effectively is even more important than it was in Reagan’s time. These talents and experiences may be the new normal when it comes to qualifications to be president. And it’s fair to point out that these are not talents gained from 40 years in government.
Is Trump qualified to be president? Not if he is judged by the traditional standards of presidential qualifications; in that case the nod goes to Clinton. But what if the traditional way to measure one’s qualifications for the presidency have become as outdated as the process of nominating a candidate? What this all comes down to is that we will not know if Trump is qualified to be president unless he is elected president. The real question is: Are voters willing to take the risk to determine if Trump really is qualified to be president?