KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— If Joe Biden wins the presidency, he will bring with him nearly a half-century of elected officeholding experience, giving him perhaps the fullest resume of public service possessed by any new president ever.
— It may be that Democrats are more open to a very experienced candidate than Republicans were in 2016, when they selected a presidential nominee, Donald Trump, with no elected or military experience.
— Biden has a very long record to defend, a burden that other, much less experienced candidates do not have. He also will have to show that he has learned from past mistakes and can run a disciplined, strong campaign.
Biden and the pluses and minuses of experience
In 1980, George H.W. Bush ran for the Republican nomination for president as a candidate of experience, using as a slogan “A President We Won’t Have to Train.” This was both a shot at the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, who was only a one-term governor and short-time state senator before winning the presidency in 1976, and primary rival Ronald Reagan, a former two-term California governor who was otherwise known for his acting career and who had to prove he had the chops to be president. Bush — then a former House member, national Republican Party chairman, envoy to China, ambassador to the United Nations, and CIA director — eventually would become Reagan’s running mate, adding eight years as vice president to his already lengthy public service resume before winning the presidency himself in 1988. In addition to his governing resume, Bush was the last president to serve in combat in the military.
For Joe Biden, the former vice president and political lifer, dusting off Bush’s 1980 slogan might make some sense. That’s because if Biden, who may have already entered the presidential race by the time you’re reading this, were to win election as president next year, he arguably would be the most experienced new president ever.
That of course goes hand in hand with another potential milestone Biden could set if he wins: He would be the oldest president ever, 78 when the next president will be inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2021.
But Biden’s experience, and everything that comes with it, is no guarantee to be an asset to his campaign. It may ultimately be a detriment, and that may be doubly so if the value of his experience is not deployed in service of a strong campaign.
Biden has spent 44 years in major elected office: He served from 1973 to 2009 in the Senate, and then an additional eight years as vice president. He had successes in that role, and Biden’s time as vice president makes him a credible presidential contender, as VP expert Joel Goldstein argued in a Crystal Ball piece earlier this year. If one also counts Biden’s pre-Senate elected experience, two years on the New Castle County Council, he has 46 years of elected experience.
Vox tallied all of the military and elected office experience of the presidents, finding that the average president had served 13 years in public office prior to becoming president and 5.6 years in the military.
Biden’s 46 years of formal public office experience would dwarf that of the current leader, Democrat Martin Van Buren, whose 31 years in public office currently stands as the highest total of public office experience of any incoming president, according to Vox’s count. The leaders in military experience are Whig Zachary Taylor and Republican Dwight Eisenhower, both of whom served for roughly four decades in the military prior to being elected president.
We say Biden “arguably” would have the most experience of any incoming president only because it may be that experience itself is in the eye of the beholder and may depend on the era in which a president is elected. The Founders, obviously, could not accrue experience in the federal government until it was created thanks to their efforts (although many bolstered their resumes in pre-nationhood public positions). The government was also much smaller at the time of the founding, and the challenges of management far different.
But Biden’s sheer volume of years in public office is undeniable and would be unmatched by past presidents.
The recent trend has been for presidents to not have a wealth of prior experience in public office. While Barack Obama had held office for a dozen years before becoming president, two-thirds of that experience was as a state senator. George W. Bush was governor of Texas, albeit a huge state, for just six years before becoming president. Bill Clinton’s time as governor of Arkansas was longer, a dozen years, but his state was much smaller. Of the recent presidents, the depth and breadth of George H.W. Bush’s experience stands out; prior to Carter, the White House belonged to three consecutive presidents with lots of experience: Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, and Lyndon Johnson.
Donald Trump was the first president who had neither previous elected office experience nor previous service in the military. Replacing a president with no previous elected or military experience with someone who has more elected experience than any other new president would be quite a shift, although it also wouldn’t be the first time that the American public picked a new president who was wildly different than the one they currently have. Just compare Trump to Obama, or Obama to George W. Bush, or George W. Bush to Clinton, to see the stylistic and substantive differences between a new president and his predecessor. American voters often want what they don’t have, and it sometimes shows in their electoral choices.
The presidency isn’t a job that necessarily goes to only the most veteran politicians. In fact, having a long record in office might be Biden’s undoing if he ultimately falls short of the White House, either in the primary or the general election. We have already seen how some episodes from Biden’s past, such as his handling of Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence Thomas’ 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, could haunt him in a campaign. He has many votes, and many actions, he’ll have to defend or explain.
American history is dotted with legendary senators who tried and failed multiple times to ascend to the presidency. Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster represented the “Great Triumvirate” of the pre-Civil War Senate, but none got the top job despite seeking it repeatedly. Robert A. Taft, a true conservative known as “Mr. Republican,” unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination several times, losing out for the final time to Eisenhower, a man with no elected officeholding experience prior to becoming president but great military and executive experience as the commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was one of the great leaders of the liberal cause in the Senate; he lost out on winning the presidency to Nixon, another political lifer whose day finally came in 1968 after agonizing losses for president in 1960 and California governor in 1962. Recent GOP nominees Robert Dole (1996) and John McCain (2008) each had decades of elected experience in addition to military experience and sought the presidency as a capstone to their careers; both lost.
Still, Biden’s years of experience could help him in ways, too.
Yes, it is true, the Republicans selected someone with zero experience in elected office, Trump, in 2016. Hypothetically, Democrats could also eventually decide to nominate someone with no or little elected experience. If they did, perhaps they would select an outsider with no experience, like entrepreneur Andrew Yang or self-help guru Marianne Williamson, or former Rep. Beto O’Rourke or South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who both have elected experience but not in a major office (neither has been a governor or senator or served as vice president or as a federal Cabinet secretary).
But we need to constantly remind ourselves that the parties are different and often value dissimilar things.
Trump’s ascendance was, to us, the culmination of several years’ worth of angst by Republican voters directed at their party leadership. The rise of the Tea Party, and the emergence of primary challengers to sitting members of Congress, suggested a desire for fresh leadership on the GOP side. The lack of support for the dynastic presidential campaign of Jeb Bush, whose effort was in many ways adrift even before Trump entered the race, was another sign of a Republican Party searching for nontraditional leadership.
It is not clear whether something similar is happening on the Democratic side. It might be, if Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D, NY-14) primary victory in 2018 over Joe Crowley, once the No. 4 House Democrat, is indicative of anything. Ocasio-Cortez has quickly become one of the most recognizable faces of the Democratic Party nationally, and she certainly is exerting more of a leftward force on the party than someone like Crowley did. It also seems fair to say that the bulk of the Democratic primary field is running on a platform that is to the left of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on issues such as healthcare and the environment.
On the other hand, national polling from the past several years finds that Democrats are less ideological than Republicans, are less likely to express a desire for their party to move further away from the political center, and are more likely to value experience in a presidential nominee.
The Pew Research Center recently found that only 40% of Democrats wanted the party to move more to the left, while 53% said they wanted the party to move in a more moderate direction. This roughly squares with Gallup’s ongoing measure of ideological self-identification among Democrats, which shows that while liberal self-identification is growing on the Democratic side, the party is still split about evenly between those who identify as liberal versus those who identify as moderate or conservative. In contrast, Pew found that 58% of Republicans wanted the GOP to move more to the right, while just 38% wanted the party to move in a more moderate direction, and Gallup found that about three-quarters of Republicans identify as conservative while just a quarter identify as moderate or liberal.
Morning Consult found that among several candidate attributes, Democrats prioritized political experience, with two-thirds saying that having decades of political experience was important for their eventual nominee to possess. Right before the 2016 primary season began, Pew asked both Democrats and Republicans whether they would be less likely to support a presidential candidate with a long history of service as an elected official in Washington: 44% of Republicans said yes compared to just 19% of Democrats.
The fact that the Democratic Party electorate has more moderates than the Republican electorate and that the Democrats seem to value experience more are two factors that could benefit Biden, who both has a lot of experience and will position himself closer to the center than most of his Democratic rivals. That said, we shouldn’t treat these poll findings as the final word on what will animate Democratic voters in the primary season next year. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich recently wrote, at this time in the 2016 cycle more Republicans said they valued experience and a proven record in a presidential candidate than new ideas and a different approach. By the fall of 2015, Republicans flipped on this question, which probably was a reflection of the fact that Trump was leading the GOP primary polls at that point. In other words, Democrats may say they value experience now, but their answers to those questions could change if a candidate with less experience moves into the lead in the primary.
During the 2016 campaign, many analysts (ourselves included) cited the “party decides” thesis of modern presidential nominations, which in a nutshell is the idea, promulgated by a book of the same name, that even though the nomination process is much more open to the opinions of rank-and-file voters than it was in the pre-reform era of the mid-20th century, party leaders still exert a great deal of influence on who the nominee is. The “party decides” framework did a poor job of predicting Donald Trump as the GOP nominee, as Trump was derided by many elites in the party even as he won the support of GOP voters. But the framework did do a good job of suggesting that Hillary Clinton, the party insider choice, was always a giant favorite over insurgent Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic nomination battle. In such a huge Democratic field this time, it may be that party leaders will not unify behind a single candidate, although if any candidate can win such elite support, one would think it would be Biden. It will be interesting to see how many formal endorsements he receives right off the bat as he launches his campaign. He already has received at least a couple of notable endorsements, from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY). Cuomo, Feinstein, and hundreds of other party elected officials are superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention, and they can support whomever they want for the nomination. However, in a change from 2016, the superdelegates’ votes essentially will only matter if the convention goes beyond a first ballot (we explored this more deeply in the Crystal Ball a couple of weeks ago).
The volume and timing of these endorsements will be one way to judge Biden’s formal rollout.
Part of the value of Biden’s experience could or should be a sophisticated and well-funded campaign operation. We do have to say, though, that the constant announcement delays and questions about exactly when and where Biden will announce have not been suggestive of a well-oiled machine. Biden has also never been a fundraising dynamo. His presidential campaigns in both 1988 and 2008 were flops: Have he and his staffers learned from the experience? And will Biden, once he announces, make the kinds of verbal gaffes for which he is known — the kinds of mistakes more characteristic of a novice candidate as opposed to an experienced one? There is also the issue of his touchy-feely campaign style, which has made some women uncomfortable in Biden’s presence. If and when he repeats this well-worn behavior, and if Democratic voters decide not to give him the benefit of the doubt, this campaign may not go any further than his previous efforts.
Biden effectively will be campaigning as a George H.W. Bush-style “President We Won’t Have to Train.” That may be the perfect message for the moment, and he may be the perfect man to deliver it. But there is also the danger that Biden is something else: “The Candidate Who Cannot Be Trained.” If that is the case, all of his experience may have been for naught in this campaign.