The intense focus on Donald Trump among the Republican presidential candidates has obscured a phenomenon in which he is a part of but is not unique to him. Consider this recent take from the Washington Post’s Philip Bump:
Fox News released the results of the first major-outlet national poll since the first Republican debate three months two weeks ago. Comparing those results to the Fox poll released immediately before the debate, we can, as objectively as possible, declare a winner: Ben Carson, who saw a five-point jump in the polls — a 71 percent increase over where he was two weeks ago…
Carly Fiorina gained three — impressive because it more than doubled her support. She clearly won the early-bird debate…
In total, 42 percent of the support from Republican voters went to people who have never held elected office: Trump, Fiorina and Carson.
Add in the standing of the least experienced elected official in the race, Ted Cruz (Senate Class of 2012), who is also the loudest disparager of his fellow GOP members of Congress, and you’ve got more than half the Republican electorate preferring as little time on the public service clock as possible. Meanwhile, the rest of the field has compiled a total (through 2016) of 144 years in elected office.
A year ago a much-discussed piece that focused on Rand Paul’s campaign suggested this cycle might represent a “libertarian moment.” It’s now looking more like amateur hour.
To be sure, it’s not that unusual to find one or two “outsider” candidates running for president in this or that election year. But they often have public service experience that didn’t involve running for office, e.g., former NATO commander Wes Clark in 2004 or former Secretary of Transportation and Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole in 2000. The last president without elected official experience was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was on the public payroll from his days at West Point through his Supreme Allied Commander role in World War II and his Supreme Commander of NATO gig after the war. Occasionally you get a marginally viable candidate with no public experience on the Republican side of the aisle, such as Steve Forbes and Herman Cain. But having three such candidates in a single cycle? That’s a new one.
Of these three, Dr. Ben Carson fits the Forbes/Cain role of someone who was very successful in the private sector, though in a field—medicine—not usually considered a relevant prerequisite for high public office. It’s really his success as a motivational writer and speaker, and of course his potential crossover appeal as an African-American conservative, that has made him presidential timber (to his supporters, at least).
Trump and Fiorina stand out against all prior “amateurs” as people whose private sector records have been, well, mixed. Presumably Trump’s past bankruptcies have been offset by his unquestioned success as an entertainment celebrity. He hasn’t had to spend a dollar or a moment to establish his name ID, which is likely stronger than Jeb Bush’s.
The real precedent-setter in the field, however, could be Carly Fiorina, who has by most standards been a failure in both the private sector (she was fired amid much acrimony from her one CEO gig, with Hewlett-Packard, after her merger strategy collided with the dot-com crisis and led to an estimated 30,000 layoffs and a terrible beating for corporate profits) and in politics (she used her HP golden parachute to run for the U.S. Senate in California in the extremely good Republican year of 2010 and got trounced by Barbara Boxer).
She has, however, managed to become a regular in the businessperson-advisor-to-politicians biz, with the kind of connections to 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney that might have led to a minor Cabinet post or a major ambassadorship had those general elections turned out differently. But more importantly, she became the only woman in a vast field of Republicans competing to (probably) take on the putative First Woman as President, Hillary Clinton, and that has made her both bulletproof and a valued party asset.
All three amateur candidates—along with their spiritual ally Sen. Cruz—are clearly benefiting from a climate of opinion among rank-and-file Republicans in which the habitual anti-Washington sentiment has turned sharply against Republican office-holders, and not just in Washington. Decades of alleged betrayal of the conservative movement and its constituent elements (especially the Christian Right and those who bristle at any compromise with liberals or Big Government) by Republican elected officials at every level have made short work of long resumes. The most alarming thing for the Republican Establishment is that their usual peremptory dismissal of unsuitable candidates like Trump and Cruz does not seem to be working its magic this time.
Ultimately the Establishment could well have the last laugh of the 2016 “clown show.” For one thing, the amateurs could help destroy each other; Trump has already been the first fellow Republican to point a finger at Fiorina and call her a loser. And if Trump’s long history in the public eye supplies his rivals’ Super-PACs with abundant ammunition, Carson’s brief history of association with extremism could be enough to scare off voters once they understand his idea of the “political correctness” he despises includes much they hold dear.
But it’s clear these candidates will not go away quietly, and won’t go away at all if a lack of experience is the only problem they exhibit. All these years of despising the public sector have finally taken a toll on a Republican Party that considers itself proudly on the brink of total power in Washington. “The base” is not impressed.
And even if the GOP can end the “amateur hour” during its nomination process, there’s always the chance a third-party candidacy will emerge from the wreckage. The last two times an amateur appeared on the general election ballot, in 1992 and 1996, Republicans lost.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.
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