In Federalist #57, Alexander Hamilton stated: “The aim of every political constitution is or ought to be first to obtain for rulers, men who possess much wisdom to discern, and much virtue to pursue the common good of society…” [Emphasis mine]. The Constitution is silent on the level of wisdom except that they set the age of 35 for being eligible to be President. This age was chosen in the hopes that one would be mature of mind and wisdom.
Donald Trump is perhaps the least knowledgeable and most policy ignorant candidate ever for a major political party in the history of the United States. We should expect more from our prospective leaders. Obviously, innate intelligence is not a requirement to be President; there is no IQ cutoff point. And we certainly do not want the “expert” technocratic bureaucracy that Wilson and FDR preferred. But, we should certainly expect that they have a modicum of a grasp on policy and not be someone where keeping a catalog of policy gaffes has become a political parlor game. As Trump’s performance on the Hugh Hewitt Show indicates, we should expect our candidate to know what the nuclear triad is. It took Rand Paul on a debate stage to school Trump on the fact that China is not a partner to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Looking back, it is obvious that the Republican Party and voters demand less policy expertise than what Democrats expect of their candidate. But, too much expertise can cross a line into elitism and that is what the Democratic Party represents. In terms of policy expertise and knowledge, Carter was certainly better than Reagan and Gore was certainly better than Bush. But both Reagan and Bush were Governors of important states. Both had clearly articulated agendas which they set into motion in their first year in office. And both were obviously better at communicating those agendas and policies and, most importantly, principles. If you lack principle, it could be masked by a knowledge of issues, and vice versa. Unfortunately, Trump lacks both knowledge and principle. It is not necessary to delve into the minutiae of every policy lest you end up Jimmy Carter, but some minimal standard should be mandatory.
Which is a strange phenomena because Republican voters and conservatives in general tend to be more informed than their Democratic/liberal counterparts on most issues. It does not always translate into elevating our best and brightest onto the political stage. The proof? Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. This year, Ben Carson who led the polls for a time, actually made Trump look like a member of MENSA on the issues.
Instead, it is as if the GOP electorate is more motivated by the immediate which often produces false prophets, or ones prone to gaffes. Perhaps this explains why 79% of Republican voters feel they are on the losing side in debates while only 52% of Democrats express the same sentiments. Close to 80% of Democratic voters prefer a presidential candidate with government and policy expertise or experience while only 40% of Republicans feel identically and, in fact, 50% of GOP voters want an “outsider.”
With Trump, the ultimate know-nothing has been elevated to the pinnacle of the Party. This is not surprising. A poll of GOP voters in late 2015 showed that 62% of Republicans believed an ordinary man on the street would do a better job of governing the country than our current crop of leaders. Trump is that perceived postulated ordinary man in the street in a tailored suit.
I refer to this as the Drunk Uncle Phenomena, named after the politically incorrect drunken recurrent character on Saturday Night Live. It is the bar stool leaders one can find in any drinking establishment with a tap, a liquor license and a television set where semi- or totally inebriated people solve all the problems in the country and the world. The solutions are all very simple; we just don’t have the right leaders to implement their drunken solutions. Enter Donald Trump and his simple-minded rhetoric. For a man who lied his way out of military service, he obviously has no idea about foreign policy, national defense or how the military actually works. It is evident in the rhetoric and, when cornered, the obfuscation of discourse. We are going to “get tougher” and “win…America doesn’t win anymore.” It is why Trump, the most ignorant, least knowledgeable and most untrustworthy candidate can say with a straight face, “trust me…I’ll fix it” without any specifics. What’s worse is he got away with it.
In effect, a presidential campaign is a series of job interviews. And that interview process has become longer and longer. Trust me- come November 9th, names will be floated for 2020. Campaign performance has replaced the virtues which our Founders believed would propel the best to the highest office in the Nation. It is best exemplified by a quote by Dan Quayle upon losing the 1992 election to Bill Clinton: “If he governs like he ran his campaign, the country should be in good shape.” Imagine if that were true with Trump.
And the GOP is good at eating and devouring our own, especially the policy wonks. Such is the case most recently with Paul Ryan who was a darling of conservatives not too long ago and no one can challenge his grasp of issues and the nuances of policy. Yet today he is vilified by many. A man who I once thought was an exceptional choice for president- former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels- was likewise shunned because he had the temerity to suggest a truce on the social issues. He knew policy, he was popular and he was an accomplished Governor. Scott Walker knew the issues and could talk policy as could Tim Pawlenty previous to him. Their transgression? Not flashy enough.
It is a damn shame that in a campaign when so many much more knowledgeable candidates ran, it was the least knowledgeable that won the nomination. Something went wrong when we can say that even George Pataki had a better grasp of policy and the issues than the eventual nominee. Hamilton must be turning in his grave right about now.