Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had quite a tiff about who was better qualified to be president during one of their debates. Sanders claimed that Clinton lacked judgment; Clinton claimed that Sanders lacked experience. Donald Trump’s recent questioning of those with a “perfect résumé” is an interesting interrogation of those qualities we look for in leaders. If, as he claims, résumés are not the answer, then by what else can we choose?
Donald Trump said that if elected he would surround himself with people who don’t have the “perfect résumé.” “I also look and have to look for talented experts with approaches and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war. We have to look to new people,” he said in his major foreign policy speech on April 27, 2016.
The leading Republican candidate to be President of the United States and CEO of numerous businesses, Trump believes he is as qualified if not more qualified to be president than all the graduates of Harvard, Georgetown, Yale, etc. This bravado rings well with all those who never attended elite schools. And it echoes the damning portraits of “the best and the brightest” (in David Halberstam’s description of the arrogance of the dream team surrounding presidents Kennedy and Johnson). The Schlesingers, Sorensens and McNamaras attended the best schools; they all had “perfect résumés.” During that Camelot era, Harvard University initiated a rule limiting professors’ leaves of absence to two years. The Boston/Washington shuttle was often overbooked.
And yet, the best and the brightest were wrong, very wrong, on many issues, most evidently on the Vietnam War.
Two counter examples to “perfect résumés”: In the Swiss political system, members of the Federal Council can change departments after elections. Those who have been in office the longest have first choice. Following the election of 2008, Ueli Maurer - with a commercial apprenticeship and a federal accountant's diploma, former director of the Zürich Farmers’ Association and president of the Swiss Vegetable Farmers' Association - became head of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports. Following the election of 2015, Maurer switched departments to be head of the Federal Department of Finance. The assumption in the Swiss system is that if people can manage, particular expertise in a field is not needed to run a specific federal department. This is also true at the local level.
At conferences, when I used to introduce the then Montague Burton Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, I took great pleasure in saying that Adam Roberts had no PhD, and that he had a quality one couldn’t buy at the Migros or learn in school - common sense. Adam has a unique ability to take extremely complicated issues and get right to what is important. In addition, he can present material in a most succinct and understandable manner. (By the way, he is now Sir Adam Roberts, and was for many years the president of the British Academy.) Adam Roberts is easily intelligible to all audiences.
The Republican Party idolizes Ronald Reagan because they think he had similar qualities. The Great Communicator was able to connect with all people. However, before becoming president, he had been the governor of California, a political experience far from Trump’s business experience. Reagan was not a governmental novice when he became Commander- in-Chief.
Nonetheless, there is something tempting in Trump’s analysis of those surrounding President Obama and Hillary Clinton. If one takes a simplistic bottom-line approach, much of recent United States foreign policy has not been successful. (The invasion of Iraq and its consequences belongs squarely on the shoulders of the Republicans.) Trump’s vision of the world is post-World War II. That period of unilateral importance will not return, even if there was a brief appearance between the end of the Soviet Union in 1989 and September 11, 2001. The more important point is the value of a healthy skepticism towards those who are members of the elite - the Council of Foreign Relations, Brookings, and Heritage specialists. None of these experts was able to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union or the Arab Spring. Isn’t that what experts are supposed to do?
How do we choose our leaders in democracies? Likability? Gravitas? Trustworthiness? Post-mortems after elections are helpful in discerning the qualities possessed by the winners, but there is obviously no set formula here. Each election is different. Each candidate is different. The Swiss system minimizes expertise. In the United States, Trump’s attack on the “perfect résumé” has obvious traction. Assuming Clinton and Trump are the final candidates of their parties, it remains to be seen whether his qualities will outdistance Clinton’s “perfect résumé.” Nevertheless, his questioning of the value of a “perfect résumé” merits reflection.