October 1, 2016

Politickin’ me off: In presidential politics, morals matter most

A debate has been raging on the Democratic side of the presidential nominating contest in which both remaining candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have accused the other of being unqualified for the job.

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Illustration by Sarah Blankenship

Sanders said at a campaign rally that Clinton’s support for Wall Street and the Iraq War disqualified her from the presidency, according to The Hill. Defending the remarks, he said he was simply responding to Clinton’s charge that he is unqualified. In the past, she has argued that her experience as Secretary of State makes her a stronger candidate.

The candidates clearly disagree about what “qualified” should mean in the context of the presidency. Clinton wants to debate their job experience, but Sanders wants to debate their character. 

Regardless of whether Sanders is your preferred candidate, he has identified a fundamental truth about American presidential politics – qualifications do not matter.

That does not mean political knowledge does not matter, or that having a passionate philosophy about the country’s future does not matter – those are the things a president cannot succeed without. Executive experience, foreign policy experience and a history of being the person who makes the big decisions are the things a president can learn on the job.

You can appoint people who understand and have experience in foreign policy. You can, although it is not trendy to admit in liberal circles, make a decision about how America should respond to the conflict in a particular country even if you could not locate it on a map during the primary campaign.

There is only one thing voters cannot expect a president to improve after they are elected, and that is a guiding moral philosophy.

President Barack Obama is ardently admired by many supporters of Clinton and a fair few of Sanders for what he has accomplished during his two terms as president. Yet it must be acknowledged that by the Clinton campaigns’ standards, Obama was barely more qualified for the job than the average person off the street.

It did not matter. Obama did not need a decade of executive experience to know what he wanted to accomplish as president, to hire the people needed to get the job done and to make compromises until he was able to get what he valued most. He beat Clinton, not to mention John McCain and Mitt Romney, because he made the conversation about morals and ideals and he had what voters wanted.

Are those qualities that Sanders would share as president? We do not know, just as we did not know whether Obama truly had them until he was elected. Because the president of the United States is a job truly unlike any other, combining the most difficult aspects of governor, legislator, army general and head of the CIA, there is no way to really know.

Clinton has made the argument that Sanders is unqualified as president because there are less data points on his resume than on hers, but the presidency is something you apply for with a philosophy, not a list of previous jobs.

This is something that the Republican party understands this year far better than the Democrats do. The idea that Donald Trump is more qualified to be president than Ted Cruz, John Kasich or practically anybody else is laughable – and his supporters do not care. They just want to get someone into the Oval Office who will stand up for what they really believe in.

The old adage is that Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line. This has always been to the advantage of Democrats because it means that when they win elections, it is with presidents who have strong liberal beliefs and are willing to fight for them, while Republican presidents consistently disappoint voters on the issues that matter most to them (eight years of George W. Bush later, abortion was still legal). It is clear from the tone of the two primaries this year that the old saying has been reserved. As Clinton slowly gets the Democrats in line, Republicans are head-over-heels in love.

Sanders argues, whether or not he wants to admit it, that Clinton’s priorities and beliefs make her an unsuitable president. Whether or not he is right about that, he is right about how the presidency should be decided. Voting for someone because they have accomplished more than their opponents, even if you have to bite your tongue to tolerate those accomplishments, is a nonsensical and morally bankrupt approach to democracy.

Clinton argues (and she definitely does not want to admit it) that even if you think what she has done it the past is not quite what you wanted, at least she got it done.

Voters need to make their choice for president based on beliefs and based on who shares their vision for what the future of American democracy should be. Maybe that is Sanders, maybe it is Clinton. Maybe it is one of the Republican candidates, or someone else entirely.

In any case, if you are backing your candidate based on their perceived ability to get things done, make sure that if they do get it done, your conscience will be clear.

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