How do we determine which governor or senator, celebrity or capitalist has what it takes to become a serious presidential candidate? Not that long ago, legendary New York Times columnist Russell Baker wrote that there was somewhere (almost certainly in the press section) a mysterious authority — whom Baker called the “Great Mentioner” — who made those calls. We would read or hear that Gov. Billy Bigbody had been “mentioned” as a presidential possibility or that people were “mentioning” Sen. Sandy Smith for the national ticket.
Rather than wait around hoping to be noticed by the Great Mentioner, Democrats interested in the White House (who seem by now to include the majority of their party’s national officeholders) are busy nominating themselves. At last check, I counted eight current U.S. senators, two former Cabinet officers, four present or past governors, five U.S. representatives, four big-city mayors and one former vice president with varying cases of White House fever.
To save you good readers the time and trouble of having to read all these candidates’ ponderous position papers about such riveting subjects as why the U.S. should convert to the metric system and repeal right-turn-on-red laws, let us agree to insist that each and every presidential candidate answer the following before we’ll even consider taking a bumper sticker:
Why do you want to be president? Who are the specific villains — by name and by practice, both corporate and personal — that you, as president, would first seek to bring to justice? Who are the victims of governmental indifference or interference, by name and condition, whom you would, as president, first seek to aid?
Then, before we the voters can take a candidacy seriously, the candidate must be able to make the case publicly and persuasively — without once mentioning by name the incumbent — why he or she should be elected president, as opposed to anyone else who’s running. What is each candidate’s unique selling point that would make him or her a successful president?
Much has lately been written about the importance of likability in a presidential candidate. Former Sen. Bill Cohen, R-Maine, who was undefeated in his political career in races for city council, mayor and Congress before serving as secretary of defense under a Democratic president, explained it well: “I don’t care how great your ideas are or how well you articulate them. People must like you before they will vote for you.”
In 2016, likability was missing. Exit polls of actual voters showed Democrat Hillary Clinton winning favorable ratings from just 43 percent and unfavorable scores from 55 percent. But that was not so bad as voters’ thumbs-down on Republican Donald Trump. His numbers were 60 percent unfavorable and just 38 percent favorable. More upbeat was the 2008 contest, when both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain received positive marks from nearly 3 in 5 voters. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that if Trump had been running unopposed in 2016, he would have lost. He won only because he was running against Clinton.
But first we must demand that all self-selected presidential hopefuls tell us now why they want to be president and what real difference — in the lives of everyday Americans — their presidency would make if they were to win. If they cannot first do that, they deserve neither your time nor even your courtesy.