Some years ago, my wife and I bought an 80-year old, hand-built farmhouse with a barn reeking of horse and hay and a six foot black snake in the unfinished basement. With five acres of rolling Virginia farmland, a cattle farm (complete with severely listing barn) across the unpaved road, and two creeks, it was what we had hoped to find (except for the apparently unlimited supply of mice).
My mother-in-law took a decidedly different view. “I like new,” she declared. Over the course of the next five years, we lost the battle with the mice and never saw the snake (although a repairman did). While we nevertheless loved the place, my mother-in-law was onto something which has influenced my interpretation of American politics ever since.
Americans like “new.” New cars. New electronic gadgets. New shampoo. New diets. Perhaps it is the legacy of living in the “New World,” but “new” has a unique appeal in our society. For some reason, advertisers often declare a product is unchanged, but at least the box it comes in is “new.”
And as a general rule, the same rule applies in presidential politics. Since the modern age of campaigning and telecommunications began to shape our electoral preferences, Americans have chosen, almost without exception, the new, less experienced, more alluring candidate when presented with a genuine choice.
True, there have been exceptions. Nixon in 1968: a former congressman, senator, vice president and presidential nominee. You couldn’t get any better known. But remember, he was running against a sitting vice president and a segregationist ex-governor. And he ran as “the new Nixon”!
The other great exception to my rule was George H. W. Bush, who had served as vice president for eight largely invisible years in addition to two terms as a congressman and a succession of appointive positions. But he was running against a dull-as-dishwater Democrat whom you felt you had known for a long time.
But everyone else was, when they were elected, either new to federal office, politically inexperienced, something of a celebrity, or definitely more fun than the opposition.
- Eisenhower, the successful general with the big grin and no elective experience over the cerebral Gov. Stevenson (not even close);
- the telegenic and dashing Kennedy, a largely inconsequential senator over the drab but vastly better known Nixon (close election, but decisive);
- Johnson over Goldwater (doesn’t count, special circumstances);
- Carter over Ford (peanut farmer, no federal service, and no voting record over long-serving House minority leader and appointed VP);
- Reagan over Carter (movie star, no federal service, no legislative record);
- Clinton over Bush (the aw-shucks Elvis over the clueless, watch-checking tax raiser);
- Bush II over Gore (no federal service, no legislative voting record, everyman over Mr. Smarty Pants vice president, senator, congressman, son of a senator);
- Obama over McCain (youth, smile, history-making over gray-haired Beltway fixture who himself picked an alarming novice for VP); and
- Trump over Hillary (sleazy, tough talking TV star and political neophyte over the epitome of Beltway conventionality).
The old saying declares we prefer the devil we know to the devil we don’t, but in presidential politics, that’s usually not true. We roll the dice; we prefer the slick talker, the phrasemaker, the new face over the experienced statesperson. Americans get bored easily and they view politics, to some degree, as entertainment. We don’t believe what candidates promise, and we presume they’ll probably disappoint us (often rather quickly); so, we might as well be entertained in the process.
Applying this theorem to 2020 presents something of a challenge, but it might help explain the perplexing rise of Pete Buttigieg to the status of top-tier contender and maybe even, however briefly, front runner in Iowa. Yes, Buttigieg is a smart guy; he has the gift of the orator’s silver tongue; he has the unconventionality of having volunteered to serve in the military during a war he strongly opposed (yes, there’s likely an element of conscious resume-building in that decision).
But he also is of incredibly limited experience to become president. After all, he has been mayor of a city that is one-seventh the size of a congressional district, his inter-branch experience is limited to dealing with a city council of eight members (contrasted with 535 in Congress), and his two efforts to run for bigger office in Indiana and the Democratic party were unsuccessful. Even his combat zone experience was as an intelligence officer; he did not exactly plan D-Day.
And yet, Buttigieg is enjoying an enormous bump in recent polls. Unquestionably, if you apply the Bush II v Gore test to the 2020 field (“Who would you rather have a beer with?”), Mayor Pete is the hands-down winner. And few people discuss complex policy issues when having a beer at the local bar (at least, few people outside the Beltway).
And maybe that’s enough. Buttigieg has the luck to be running against a more experienced but decidedly less appealing field, many of whom are burdened with long voting records that make opposition researchers drool when designing attack ads. He’s smart, he’s fresh, he handles questions well and he appears upbeat and pragmatic. And he is being contrasted to the incumbent who is everything Buttigieg is not, and then some.
Of course, untested candidates often must overcome concerns about issues that could jeopardize (or at least raised questions about) their campaigns: Eisenhower’s health, Kennedy’s Catholicism, Carter’s evangelicism, Bill Clinton’s cavorting, Obama’s race. But like Trump, Buttigieg lives in era when, thanks to the internet, little about a candidate’s background or beliefs is unknown, so an issue that might have derailed a candidacy through disclosure, such as Mayor Pete’s sexual orientation, is well known and potentially neutralized by the time primaries, caucuses or Election Day arrive.
Are Americans willing to overlook inexperience and elect someone who was born in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s first term in office? I often say I’m an historian who is more comfortable analyzing the past than predicting the future, but from an historical standpoint, Buttigieg’s inexperience could become an asset that could help propel him, as it has others, into the Oval Office.