2020 Visions

senator mccarthy

Eugene MCarthy in 1956, two years before Minnesota elected him to be one of its Senators

The 22 February 1988 issue of The New Republic carried a piece by former US Senator Eugene McCarthy. An adapted version of this piece appears under the title “Standards and Guides for Picking Presidential Candidates” in McCarthy’s 2004 book Parting Shots from My Brittle Bow. McCarthy provided lists of characteristics which should be considered disqualifying for potential US presidents. This list would rule out, not only every candidate who was running in the 1988 election, but everyone who had ever served as president. Since McCarthy did not share my conviction that the US presidency ought to be abolished, I believe that at least some of the characteristics  were included tongue-in-cheek, as a way of ensuring a transparently false conclusion.

Nonetheless, I’ve spent a fair bit of time these last 30 years thinking about McCarthy’s lists. The first list rules out prospective candidates on the basis of the jobs they’ve held. Among them are “governors and former governors, unless they have had experience with the federal government, either before or after their governorships.” Governors-turned-presidents come into office thinking that “they can handle the Pentagon… because they have reorganized a state highway department.”  Also excluded are vice presidents and former vice presidents, not only because vice presidents are usually chosen for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to assume the top job, but also because service as vice president is a demoralizing experience that “is likely to weaken and confuse character.” Third, clergyfolk, their offspring, and “leading lay persons,” because “religious judgment and commitment is fundamentally different from that of the political-secular order.” Number four, generals and admirals, and number five, heads of big businesses, in both cases because they are accustomed to giving orders and having them carried out, experiences a president rarely knows.

The second list focuses on the conditions under which a person announces his or her candidacy. Announcements in February are disqualifying, since the ancients knew that February was a month fit only for “the worship of the dead and of the gods of the underworld.” Announcements made in the company of family members are a bad sign, as are any in which the candidate claims to be the representative of a particular generation or other demographic group. At no time should the candidate overshare medical records; McCarthy expresses his strong disapproval of “Jimmy Carter’s statement in 1976 that he was allergic to beer, cheese, and mold, and that he sometimes suffered from hemorrhoids” as tantamount to “indecent exposure.”  Nor should the candidate betray signs of actually wanting to be president rather than merely willing to accept the post; this renders suspect any aspirant who enters the race before attaining the age of fifty.

The third list lays out five “subtle signs of demagoguery.” Three stand out from this list. “Does the candidate now- or has he in a past campaign- call himself William (Bill) or Robert (Bob) or Patrick/ Patricia (Pat)? Or does the candidate, known previously as John III or IV, drop the III or IV for the campaign, thus in effect repudiating father, grandfather, and possibly great grandfather?” Apparently the senator would have preferred the volunteers for his 1968 presidential campaign go “Clean for Eugene” rather than “Clean for Gene,” but he missed his chance to do much about that.

It is also a “subtle sign of demagoguery” for a candidate to be “so heavily into physical fitness” that s/he might “walk or bicycle across a state.” One must be wary of such health fanatics. “These actions are marginally acceptable in campaigns for governor, but not for the presidency or even the Senate.”

Crying in public might be all right, provided two conditions be met. First, the occasion must be appropriate. Second, the candidate’s lacrimal productions must meet a certain aesthetic standard.  We mustn’t be satisfied if “the eyes just well up.” On the other hand, if the candidate cries “straight down the center of the lower lid, as Bette Davis did,” perhaps s/he might be suitable to be head of state.

A fourth list “involves more subtle physical, psychological, and political distinctions.” One might have thought that the ability to match the graciousness of Bette Davis’ tear ducts and to avoid making announcements in months known by Numa Pompilius to be of ill omen would be subtle enough for anyone, but McCarthy demands still more of a potential president.

The first pair of disqualifications on this list are excessive enthusiasm for numbers and for administrative detail. Such an enthusiast can “fail to consider the significance of what is being numbered, or so intent on watching for small mistakes that the big mistakes are likely to go unchallenged and unnoticed until too late.”  McCarthy illustrates these failings with the names of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War; David Stockman, head of the Office of Management and Budget during the recession of the early 1980s; and Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president whose administration was such a cavalcade of disasters that the old liberal lion Eugene McCarthy endorsed Ronald Reagan for president rather than acquiesce in his reelection. Mr Carter also figures in McCarthy’s caution against speed reading as a direct route to stupidity. As Mr Carter spent his nine years in the Navy as an officer in the submarine service, McCarthy may have had him in mind again when he warned against anyone who may have “survived on artificially supplied oxygen for long periods of time,” a stricture which he applies to submariners, astronauts, scuba divers, and mountain climbers.

Last on this list is the requirement that the candidate know the difference between herding cows and herding pigs. The president’s work is largely with Congress. The members of the House of Representatives, like a herd of cows, have to be started into motion at a barely perceptible rate of speed, accelerated very gradually to a steadier pace, and then stampeded at a blind run into the corral or the slaughterhouse. The members of the senate, on the other hand, resemble so many pigs. They can only be started to move at all by working them into a full-on panic, and can be brought to achieve legislation only by slowly easing them into the illusion, not only that they know where they are going, but that it was their own idea all along to go there.

The conclusion may strike some as cynical, but I found it rousing:

Screenshot 2019-02-05 at 10.00.12 PM

As candidates enter the 2020 presidential campaign, some of McCarthy’s strictures seem to apply. Several governors and former governors are considering bids. Four of these have no substantial experience with the federal government: Steve Bullock of Montana, John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, and Larry Hogan of Maryland. I suspect McCarthy’s warning against governors and former governors would apply equally to mayors and former mayors who have not taken part in federal policymaking. In addition to Mr Hickenlooper and Mr Ventura, this category includes Peter “Pete” Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, Warren Wilhelm, junior (alias “Bill de Blasio”) of New York City, and Michael Bloomberg, also of New York City.

One former vice president, Joseph Biden of Delaware, is also making an effort to run. His vice presidency doesn’t seem to have weakened or confused his character beyond its condition as of 20 January 2009, though some may doubt that he had much character left to weaken or confuse at that late date, after 36 consecutive years in the US Senate.

As for religious leaders and their offspring, Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawai’i is the daughter of a man who has been prominent in a group that arose from the Hare Krishna movement and author Marianne Williamson has been a spiritual adviser to many people. With 47 candidates on the currently active list,* there may well be others of whom I am not aware who fall into these categories. [UPDATE: Dario Hunter is an ordained rabbi. Stacey Abrams, whose parents were both clergy, does not appear below because she had seemed unlikely to run when I prepared that version of the list, but as of 8 February she is making some of the noises candidates make.]

I don’t see any generals or admirals on the list; so far as I am aware, the only veterans are Mr Ventura, Ms Gabbard, Mr Buttigieg, John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. The highest ranking of these is Ms Gabbard, a major in the Hawai’i Air National Guard. Mr Moulton was a captain in the Marine Corps, Mr Kerry and Mr Buttigieg were both lieutenants junior grade in the Navy, and Mr Ventura was a Petty Officer Third Class in the Navy. So I suppose they are all well clear of the hazards the senator saw in flag rank.

Several business tycoons are looking at entering the race. Some of these, such as Mr Bloomberg, incumbent Donald J. Trump, and John Delaney of CapitalSource have held elective office, and so are proof against the senator’s warnings. Others have not: Ms Williamson, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, John McAfee of McAfee Associates, Andrew Yang of Manhattan Prep, and Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks (and many other businesses.)

Cory Booker of New Jersey announced his campaign this month, falling afoul of the senator’s warning against February announcements. Others may well announce before the month is out. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is expected to announce on 9 February.

As for persons who will be under fifty as of Inauguration Day 2021, that includes a dozen prospective candidates: Green Party leader Dario Hunter of Ohio (who will be 37), Mr Buttigieg (39,) Ms Gabbard (39,) Eric Swalwell of California (40,) Justin Amash of Michigan (40,) Mr Moulton (42,)  Mr Yang (46,) Julián Castro of Texas (46,) Akon of New Jersey (46,) Timothy “Tim” Ryan of Ohio (47,) Brian Schatz of Hawai’i (48,) and Robert “Beto” O’Rourke of Texas (48.)

Some of McCarthy’s strictures are easy to disregard; I, for one, am not convinced that the ancient view of February’s nefarious character is especially salient within our political system.  But perhaps his reservations about candidates under fifty years of age are better-founded even than he argues. A person who has risen to a position in which s/he is a viable candidate for the highest office in the land at such an early age cannot have experienced much frustration, disappointment, or humiliation in life. Frustration, disappointment, and humiliation seem to be the staples of a president’s daily routine. It is difficult to predict how any given person will react when immersed in these experiences for the first time. And there are few things more dangerous than a US president whose behavior is unpredictable.

At the time he wrote the article in 1988, McCarthy was a few weeks short of his seventy-second birthday, and still harbored his own ambitions for the presidency. He would wage his final quixotic campaign in 1992. So it is perhaps unsurprising that, while he mentioned the undesirability of presidents under fifty, he said nothing about a maximum age for presidents.

I do think the historical record would support the idea that presidents ought not be much more than seventy. The first president to turn seventy while in office was Dwight Eisenhower. Not only did Eisenhower lose substantial time to major health problems as president, but in his last year of office he gave serious thought to resigning, believing that his botched response to the U2 incident was a sign that he was too old to handle the job. Ronald Reagan turned seventy a year into his presidency, by which time he had stopped making notes on papers that passed his desk and the seeds had been planted for the Iran-Contra affair that would expose his incompetence for all to see. And of course the present incumbent, Don John of Astoria, was already seventy when he took office, and he seems to spend most of his waking hours live-tweeting Fox News.

Several candidates will be over seventy by Inauguration Day. These include Bernard “Bernie” Sanders of Vermont (79,) Mr Biden (78,) Mr. Bloomberg (78,) Mr Kerry (77,) Mr McAfee (75,) William Weld of Massachusetts (75,) Mr Trump (74,) Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York (73,) Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (71,) and Stephen “Steve” King of Iowa (71.)  Several others will turn seventy during the next presidential term. Their ages on Inauguration Day 2021: Mr Ventura (69,) Jay Inslee of Washington (69,) Eric Holder of the District of Columbia (69,) Sherrod Brown of Ohio (69,) Mr Hickenlooper (68,) Ms Williamson (68,) Robert “Bob” Corker of Tennessee (68,) John Kasich of Ohio (68,) Green Party leader Howard “Howie” Hawkins of New York (68,) Mr Schultz (67,) and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island (67.)

If the only problem with septuagenerian or octogenerian presidents were physical health, we might give heavier weight to the years over 70 that male candidates have reached than to those that female candidates have reached. Women do live longer than men on average, after all. We might also award points to conspicuously healthy people like Mr Ventura and deduct them from pudgy fellows like Mr Brown or Don John. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that there might be a correlation between life expectancy and the physical and mental resilience that is required in a highly stressful position like the presidency, resilience that usually declines with age.

But resilience isn’t the only reason age matters. As a willingness to run for president before reaching fifty struck McCarthy as a sign of someone who is overeager for the presidency, so an unwillingness to run until near or after seventy might be a sign of someone who does not want the job passionately enough to do it well. Mr Brown could have run in 2008 or 2016; I, for one, had hoped he would run in both of those years. But he showed no inclination at all to do so, and even this year is not pushing himself forward as hard as are many of the other leading candidates. Mr Sanders made his first bid when in his mid-seventies, after decades as the highest-ranking elected official in the USA to call himself a socialist. That he didn’t want to run in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s led me to be skeptical that he really wanted to run in 2016. He’s working hard this time, but he hasn’t much choice- if he takes a pass on the 2020 election, he will forfeit the national profile that has given him clout in the Senate these last two years.

Others who may have wanted to run in the past did not make it because they couldn’t put together a viable coalition to elect them then; those people probably won’t be able to put together a viable coalition now either, no matter how high their name recognition may be driving their poll numbers. So Mr Biden’s 1988 campaign gained so little traction that a couple of borderline plagiarism incidents were enough to force him to withdraw in disgrace, and his 2008 campaign made no greater impact. To believe that he will do better this time is to believe that a large pool of his potential supporters have been waiting for him to approach eighty before putting him in the White House.

Mr Biden illustrates a third problem with immensely old presidential candidates. He has been a national figure since he was first elected to the Senate in 1972. Already his prospective candidacy has dredged up controversies from the Nixon and Ford years, relating to his stand on court-ordered busing of schoolchildren to achieve desegregation and any number of other issues that have long seemed to be bracketed with jimsonweed, CB radios, and the Pet Rock. Do we really want to relitigate all that antique stuff?

That old candidates carry the baggage of old controversies should be an especially piquant topic for the Democratic Party in 2020. Every nominee representing a party whose incumbent president is being term-limited out of office is stuck with the same implicit slogan: “Eight More Years.” For a while in 1960, Richard Nixon used that as his actual slogan, an intelligent decision to embrace and make the most of the theme he couldn’t help but run on anyway. In 2016, Ms Clinton was not only a former Secretary of State in the outgoing Obama administration, but also had been the single most famous Democrat in Washington throughout the George Bush Junior administration, and before that First Lady in the Bill Clinton administration. Her implicit slogan was “Twenty Four More Years.” That she managed to win the popular vote and almost win the electoral vote while carrying the burden of all that history is a remarkable testament to her political abilities. Having lost the last election with a too-long familiar candidate, it would be very odd if the next person the Democrats nominate were someone else deeply shadowed by a long and complicated past.

*Here’s is that currently active list, sorted alphabetically by the candidate’s first name and the party the nomination of which the candidate is likely to seek. I’ve checked these columns for accuracy as of 6 February 2019. There are more columns on the spreadsheet I’ve created to keep track of the candidates, these are just the ones I’ve checked for accuracy:

NAME PARTY Home State Age as of 20 January 2021
Amy Klobuchar Democratic Minnesota 60
Andrew Yang Democratic New York 46
Bernie Sanders Democratic Vermont 79
Brian Schatz Democratic Hawai’i 48
Cory Booker Democratic New Jersey 51
Elizabeth Warren Democratic Massachusetts 71
Eric Holder Democratic DC 69
Eric Swalwell Democratic California 40
Hillary Rodham Clinton Democratic New York 73
Jay Inslee Democratic Washington 69
Jeff Merkley Democratic Oregon 64
John Delaney Democratic Maryland 57
John Hickenlooper Democratic Colorado 68
John Kerry Democratic Massachusetts 77
Joseph Biden Democratic Delaware 78
Julian Castro Democratic Texas 46
Kamala Harris Democratic California 56
Kirsten Gillibrand Democratic New York 54
Lincoln Chafee Democratic Rhode Island 67
Marianne Williamson Democratic California 68
Michael Bennet Democratic Colorado 56
Michael Bloomberg Democratic New York 78
Peter “Pete” Buttigieg Democratic Indiana 39
Robert “Beto” O’Rourke Democratic Texas 48
Seth Moulton Democratic Massachusetts 42
Sherrod Brown Democratic Ohio 69
Steve Bullock Democratic Montana 54
Terry McAuliffe Democratic Virginia 63
Tim Ryan Democratic Ohio 47
Tulsi Gabbard Democratic Hawai’i 39
Warren Wilhelm (alias “Bill de Blasio”) Democratic New York 59
Dario Hunter Green Ohio 37
Howie Hawkins Green New York 68
Jesse Ventura Green Minnesota 69
Akon Independent New Jersey 47
Howard Schultz Independent Washington 67
Mark Cuban Independent Texas 62
John McAfee Libertarian Tennessee 75
Vermin Supreme Libertarian Kansas 59
Ann Coulter Republican Florida 59
Donald Trump Republican New York 74
John Kasich Republican Ohio 68
Larry Hogan Republican Maryland 64
Robert “Bob” Corker Republican Tennessee 68
Steve King Republican Iowa 71
Justin Amash Various Michigan 40
William Weld Various Massachusetts 75
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