Assessing Candidates For President

A number of people in the GFC Network have asked our opinion of presidential candidates. To date we have begged off, citing our expertise as limited to state politics. But on reflection we think there’s one piece of advice we could offer: a checklist for assessing candidates. While federal and state governments take on very different tasks — the federal government is (as one pundit puts it) “an insurance company with an army” while states provide most domestic public services — both are American-style democracies with co-equal branches of government that require particular talents from legislators and executives to be successful. So, for what it’s worth, here’s our approach:

GFC employs five tests when evaluating candidates in contested races: intelligence, financial literacy, temperament appropriate for the sought-after office, ability to win, and courage. Intelligence and financial literacy are probably self-explanatory, as is ability to win, provided the reader understands that requirement to apply to both the nomination and the general election.

Appropriate temperament is a function of the body in which the candidate would serve. Eg, it’s one thing to serve successfully as a legislator in Congress and another to serve successfully in the White House as both a legislator and an executive. Eg, LBJ was an extraordinary legislator in Congress and as president but a disaster as commander-in-chief. In contrast, Abraham Lincoln’s temperament allowed him to succeed as both commander-in-chief and legislator-in-chief. Also, campaign temperament is different than governance temperament, so we look more at past performance than at campaign behavior. In the race for president, that’ll be easier to do in the case of candidates who have served in legislatures or as governors or mayors, harder to do with candidates who have not.

Courage to us means caring about something greater than oneself over which one will have authority in the sought-after office. It cannot be inferred from words — politicians always talk about courage — so we base our assessment as much as possible on past actions and inactions. Courage is also contextual. For example, 100 years ago it took courage for California legislators to take on giant railroad companies, at that time the most powerful political forces in the state. Today it takes no courage for California legislators to criticize businesses while it takes great courage to criticize government employee unions, who are now the most powerful political forces in the state. (That’s why most California politicians today are afraid to attack state-operated enterprises even though those enterprises are today’s equivalent of yesterday’s railroad monopolies and together capture as much in annual revenue as Amazon.) Also we don’t demand courage on each and every issue. That’s because success in government requires compromise. Lincoln had to make all kinds of compromises to get the 13th Amendment enacted, much less keep the union together. That’s why we are always trying to determine whether candidates care about something greater than themselves. If they do, then the compromises they must make along the way are likely to be in the interest of achieving something greater than personal prestige.

In the case of president we might add a desire, though not a requirement, that the candidate have children or grandchildren at risk to being called up in the event of a war. Others as old as I am to have been in the draft during the Vietnam War might also have wondered how presidents during that era would have conducted affairs had they had draft-eligible descendants.

You’ll notice we include no reference to speech-making. While we too can be moved by great speeches, in our experience there’s little correlation between what candidates say and what they do. (At GFC we like to say we are looking for Abe Lincoln in our candidates, and not just because of the Gettysburg Address. Actions really do speak louder than words.) Also we give no credit for debate skills, which we do not view as a useful skill once in office. Successful legislation requires comity, collaboration and compromise, not divisiveness and point-scoring. Also we do not give extra credit to candidates with whom we have a personal relationship. Political candidates are vying for important positions with solemn responsibilities. In our view, we have a fiduciary obligation to base our choices on merit.

Written by

Lecturer at Stanford University and president of Govern For California

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