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Who Is Qualified And How Can You Tell?

The recent back and forth over whether Elena Kagan is qualified to be on the Supreme Court bugs me.  Mostly I hate the question about whether someone is "qualified"  because there is no common set of standards as to what qualified means.  The standards tend to shift based on short-term partisan interests.  This can mean that being a first term US Senator and eight-year state senator qualified one for President, but being a six-year mayor, one-year statewide regulator and first term governor did not qualify one for Vice President. 

This reminded me of an old Ross Douthat blog post about Mike Huckabee.  Douthat made what I thought was a very smart distinction between being qualified and being prepared for the office of President.  Douthat made the point that Huckabee was about as qualified as his competitors whan it came to resume, but seemed to be faking it on both domestic and foreign policy.  Douthat defined being prepared as "the hard work of scaling up one's understanding" of national issues and challenges and found Huckabee lacking. 

Maybe Douthat was being too hard on Huckabee, but I don't think that is a bad way of trying to understand if someone is ready.  There are alot of different backgrounds that can prepare someone to be President or on the Supreme Court.  They could include a mix of elected political office, appointed civillian office, business experience, military service and others.  The key is to be able to plausibly demonstrate preparation by showing command of the issues and controversies of the day and the ability to demonstrate how your past experiences will help you deal with those issues and controversies. It doesn't have to go together all that neatly as long as you can make people see the link.  You don't have to explain how being governor of something made you an expert on foreign policy.  You can learn stuff by reading and being advised over a period of years.  If your explanation of world events and your foreign policy suggestions make sense, most people won't care alot that you didn't get your information by being in the general vicinity of Senators.  But people might want to know how your experiences relate to carrying out your goals.  How were you able to get people to go along?  When were you able to stick to a tough but unpopular policy and wait for public opinion to come around?  When did you realize you had made a mistake and changed course? 

If you can handle those kinds of questions with confidence and specificity, the fact that you "only" served one or two terms of office (and all of that out of Washington) probably won't be that much of a problem.  There will be the snobbishness and partisanship of those who insist that everyone close their ears to what they have heard.  Thats okay.  The point of politics is not to win over the Clark Cliffords of the world.

It is a fair to ask "What are the main [foreign or domestic] challenges facing the US?  What specific policies do you support or propose?  How has your career demonstrated that you can handle these challenges?  Who and what has shaped your opinions?  Whose advice would you seek out?"  Such an approach would neither unduly favor nor disfavor those who spent their early adulthoods engaged in Ivy League/Washington Establishment ticket punching (and I wouldn't want to rule out Bobby Jindal) while leaving plenty of room for people from the hinterlands who didn't make politics their first profession, but who made a thorough study of the issues and worked hard to find ways to communicate their opinions to the public. 

And yes, with compliments to Steve Hayward and regular commenter Art Deco, I am thinking or a Eureka College grad who didn't get his first job in Washington until he was in his late sixties.

Categories > Politics

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Not to mention a one-term congressman (and former state legislator) from Illinois who hadn't served in 12 years but "studied the issues" pretty thoroughly and knew how to 'splain them to people.

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