Start with just a fact: No one has been elected president of the United States who had not previously held high government office. I’ll be specific: Every president had previous experience as either vice president, a member of the U.S. House or Senate, governor of a state, a member of the Cabinet, a high-ranking judge or a general in the U.S. Army. Most of them had more than one of those credentials. Andrew Jackson had four.
Broaden the inquiry to all major party nominees for president and one exception turns up. The 1940 Republican nominee — Wendell Willkie — had never been elected to anything nor held any significant federal or state appointive position. He was a lawyer and utility executive. The Willkie tale is a strange and interesting one, but in the end he came nowhere near defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt. Still, other than Willkie, no one has ever made it as far as major party nominee without experience in a high government job.
A few others without experience in elective office have made notable runs. Multimillionaire Steve Forbes, heir to the eponymous publishing fortune, won a couple of primaries in 1996 but came nowhere near getting the nomination. Business executive Herman Cain had a moment as the poll leader in 2012. There’s Ross Perot, of course, but he’s out-of-category since he made his 1992 and 1996 bids outside the two-party system (and, although he was ahead of his major party opponents in some polls for a while, he ended up receiving zero electoral votes).
But does it signify anything interesting or important that, at present, three of the top-polling candidates for the Republican nomination — Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson — have never held any public office?
I’ll give you my gut feeling. The Republican Party has long been the party of less government, but the antagonism toward government has become so central in the thinking of many elements of the party that any experience in government now almost disqualifies a candidate, even if he or she wants to explain that they spent all their time in politics trying to make government smaller and more efficient and less intrusive and even to dismantle as much of the government as possible.
You don’t want to go too far overboard based on a response to any one poll question, especially a relatively novel question asked in one state. But:
The latest poll of likely caucus-going Iowa Republicans (just out yesterday) — the one that shows Carson has now pulled even with Trump atop the field at 23 percent each — finds that the three candidates who have never worked in government (Trump, Carson and Fiorina) draw the support of a combined 56 percent of likely caucus-goers compared to a combined 39 percent for the other 14 candidates, all of whom are current or former governors or senators.
To probe that point, the pollsters (from Monmouth University) explicitly asked:
“Regardless of who you support, what do you think the country needs more in the next president: someone with government experience who knows how to get things done or someone outside of government who can bring a new approach to Washington?”
By a healthy margin of 66-23, this sample of active Iowa Republicans thought the government needed to be led by someone untarnished by government experience.
And what do I know: Maybe they are right. My small personal quest for intellectual honesty requires me to note two last things. It’s dangerous to draw any big conclusions from a poll question, especially a relatively novel one like this. And secondly, how important really is experience in government to a future president. Some of the worst presidents (I have James Buchanan in mind at the moment) had long and widely varied experience (in Buchanan’s case, serving in the House, the Senate, as secretary of state and as ambassador to both Russia and Great Britain.)
By contrast, the president with the weakest résumé (in terms of prior federal experience) was Abe Lincoln, who served a single undistinguished term in the U.S. House (and much more than that in the Illinois Legislature). And he was our greatest president.