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Never holding political office seen as plus for presidential candidates

Written by: Jack Torry & Jessica Wehrman
Source: The Columbus Dispatch 

WASHINGTON — One of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination is a billionaire from New York who has never held public office. Not far behind him is a retired neurosurgeon from Baltimore, and a former chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard in California is rising in the polls.

In the Democratic race for president, an independent senator from Vermont who describes himself as a democratic socialist is leading former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the latest polls from Iowa and New Hampshire.

Their candidacies are vivid signs of a sweeping transformation in American politics during the past two decades as voters have rejected presidential hopefuls with rich public-service backgrounds. Instead, the electorate has turned to new faces who offer a promise of fresh thinking even as they lack the experience of the presidents who steered the country safely through the nuclear dangers of the Cold War.

“People in both parties see an advantage in running against a political process that many people believe is broken,” said James Manley, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Since 1992, when Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush, Americans have gravitated toward candidates without much political experience, prompting Richard Herrmann, an Ohio State University professor of international relations, to say experience “has not been a requirement in recent times for a successful presidential candidate."

Voters picked George W. Bush in 2000 over Democratic Vice President Al Gore and opted for first-term Democratic Sen. Barack Obama in 2008 when he defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and three-term Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the general election.

This year, the Republicans with the most extensive governmental experience, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, can’t seem to gain traction with GOP primary voters who are dazzled by businessman Donald Trump, retired physician Ben Carson and ex-CEO Carly Fiorina.

The first national poll after Wednesday’s GOP presidential debates shows Trump with 24 percent, Fiorina at 15 percent and Carson with 14. Kasich is in 10th place at 2 percent in the CNN/ORC survey released on Sunday.

Other polls suggest that the interest in a new candidate reflects deep anger among Americans aimed at the political ruling class in Washington. A Reuters poll last week showed that 57 percent of voters believe the country is on the wrong track, compared with 29 percent who think the nation is headed in the right direction.

Even as the economy has rebounded from the deep financial collapse of 2008, income for many Americans remains flat, the federal government continues to pile up huge annual deficits and young people are overwhelmed with staggering college debt.

They see intractable challenges abroad, ranging from the rise of Islamic State terrorists to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s gobbling up of Crimea to China challenging U.S. leadership in the Pacific.

And they appear to be appalled by a president and Congress unable to compromise, as well as a political system financed by wealthy donors.

“It’s a fine line with the American public,” said Terry Holt, a former adviser to House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester. “They’re thoroughly fed up with Washington and want to see dramatic change, so they’re responding to anybody who’s angry and promising to make America great again.

“It taps into being angry and wanting a brighter outlook but without any details or any sense of how we get there, and that’s where experience comes in,” Holt said.

Trump has tapped into this anger, railing against illegal immigration, insisting America’s political leaders are stupid and vowing to restore America’s greatness.

“I think his backbone and his back pocket will back up what he does,” said Roy Hostetter, a retired steelworker from Ashland, Ohio. More than experience, Hostetter said he wants someone who “ will speak the truth.”

David Krauss, a landlord from New Jersey, said Trump “is not going to take any crap. I want somebody who knows how to run a business.

“Every time we run out of money, we make a new tax,” Krauss said. “There’s no incentive to turn the country around. He makes more money if he can turn it around. The people in Congress don’t have anything at stake. If Donald Trump loses, he’s going to lose his money.’’

Krauss and Hostetter, who attended a Trump rally in Washington this month, are the faces of those intrigued by the political message delivered by Trump, Carson and Fiorina that Washington is broken and only an outsider can fix it, prompting Manley to joke, “It’s the wrong time for a Republican to have a polished resume.”

Yet, at times during Wednesday’s prime-time GOP debate, Trump seemed out of his depth when he talked about international affairs. Trump predicted he would “get along” with Putin, and “we will have a much more stable” world, a remark that did not sit well with many foreign-policy analysts.

“You saw from the debate those people who have a pretty good grasp of what is going on in the world and those who … are winging it,” said Peter Mansoor, who holds the Gen. Raymond E. Mason Jr. chair in military history at Ohio State University.

“Forty years ago, we were embroiled in an existential conflict with the Soviet Union, and we had a very recent memory from World War II, which cost 500,000 American lives,” Mansoor said. “There was more of a sense that having a grasp of national-security issues was imperative.”

Trump, Carson and Fiorina are not only running against the Republican establishment, but against history as well. Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush might have lacked national-security experience when they assumed the presidency, but they did at least hold public office prior to capturing the White House.

By contrast, not since 1940, when the Republicans nominated Wendell Willkie for president, has either party turned to a business executive who never had run for public office.

“I think it would be unusual in American history to hire someone for a job who’s got no visible relevant experience,” said John Feehery, a onetime adviser to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. “If we nominate someone like a Ben Carson or a Donald Trump, the American people are going to punish us in the polls.”


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Posted in Articles and Excerpts, Media Release, Terry Holt