Like many of you, I watched much of the debates this past week with the many, many Democratic candidates for president. If you are a Dem or lean that way, you may well have seen things that excited you, as well as other things that, well, were more of a yawn.
I was reminded of a recent article in the Colorado Springs Gazette, my local paper, wherein the good folks over there reported on a recent Washington Post “power ranking” of the current candidates. I’m quite the college football fan, and I confess that as the season nears, I find myself searching for confirmation that my school, the University of Michigan, is the best team. Given our recent win/loss record, you can understand why I don’t find too many such rankings, but they are always of interest to me. And, importantly, they don’t matter at all, in the end, as teams actually get to play each other on the fields of friendly strife.
I’m far less sanguine about such “horse race” journalism reporting on the race for president. Having been a candidate for federal office and having been a professor of political science for many years, I have a pretty good understanding of what it takes to be a good president and a good candidate. Please note that those two things — president and candidate — are not the same thing, and in today’s world, require different skills, and all too often, the skill sets do not overlap too much.
The article ranked Colorado’s own Michael Bennet as #11 in the current field. He was dismissed by the Post with only two sentences: Bennet seems to have surpassed Hickenlooper as the serious Coloradan in this race (for what that’s worth). The big question, though, is whether the understated senator will inspire anyone. Now regular readers (Hi Bob, Hi Judy) may recall an earlier screed from me in which I praised my former boss, Sen. Bennet. (I’ll wait here while you reread that bit of prose).
I do think Bennet is a remarkable and honorable fellow, two characteristics that help make a good president. As a candidate, he seems to have gotten some folks excited, but the usual comments you hear about Bennet are that he is a good guy with no shot at winning. Why?
Because he has no shot.
You see, he has no shot because those who seem to be the dubiously appointed deciders of such things have decided that there are “real” candidates (Biden, Warren, Harris) and then there are those that are not “real” because they have no shot. But again, they have no shot because they said so.
There have been lots of interesting poli sci articles (interesting if you are a politics nerd like me) that delve into what makes for a good — meaning electable — candidate. The bottom lines of those studies usually are that we pay more attention to what we can easily measure (polls, money raised, etc.) than to the core ideologies of the candidates.
So, what does that mean for our standards today in presidential politics? Sadly, it seems to suggest that memorable sound bites are more significant than profound thoughts. For example, in the first Dem debate, the time Bernie Sanders said “I wrote the damn bill” has been replayed far more often than the policy question that sparked the discussion. Whistles and bells are needed, it seems, and that’s a shame.
I once pondered which of the first 10 presidents could win a nomination and an election today, in the TV and internet world? Would voters be excited about James Madison, who stood 5’4” and wore black every day? Would they embrace Thomas Jefferson, who only gave three public speeches in his life, all were failures, not heard beyond the first row. Indeed, could a gawky, awkward Midwest lawyer with a beard get elected, given his high and squeaky voice? No, sorry Mr. Lincoln.
Of the first 10, I suspect that only George Washington — tall, well-spoken, good looking — could win today, and that’s a real shame. Looks matter. Since the 5’9” Harry Truman was elected in 1944, we’ve not elected a shorter person to office. In the modern era, the “short” presidents were Jimmy Carter at 5’9” and everyone else was 6 feet or better. So, if you want to grow up to be president, select your parents carefully.
Michael Bennet, at roughly 6 feet tall, has a great deal to offer and many fine ideas. But I suspect the soundbite that will be replayed on the evening news is not where Bennet called for fundamental reform of schools, but rather will be Cory Booker talking about Kool Aid.
So how do you run for president these days? It’s simple, just be tall, well-spoken and get mentioned. That last one, of course, is the problem.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.