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Donald Trump and Ben Carson Would Be Historically Inexperienced Presidents

Neither major party has ever nominated a candidate without government or military experience.

ROBYN BECK / Getty Images

Throughout U.S. history, even amid wars and recessions, American voters have never elected a president without government or military experience. Most previous presidents have been elected officials: governors, senators, congressmen, vice presidents. Some were generals. Others were cabinet members and a few were judges.

But none of them were as inexperienced, in this regard, as Donald Trump and Ben Carson are. 

Even among the major party nominees who did not win the presidential election, it is impossible to find someone who had not spent time either in government or the military. Alton Brooks Parker, who lost in a landslide in 1904 to Theodore Roosevelt, was a judge. Wendell Willkie, a progressive Republican businessman beaten by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940, had served in the Army during World War I. All the rest of the losers were elected politicians or generals or cabinet members. 

Today, one might conclude that military experience doesn’t count much with the voters. Among the Republican contenders, the campaigns of the three who served in uniform have not gone well. Rick Perry, who flew cargo planes in the Air Force, was the first to drop out of the race. Jim Gilmore served as a counterintelligence agent in the Army in Germany during the Vietnam War, but did not even poll high enough to qualify for last undercard debate. Senator Lindsey Graham, who was a lawyer in the Air Force, suspended his campaign this week after months in the back of the pack. 

Of the nine candidates in the most recent Republican debate, none has any military experience—and it shows. Senator Ted Cruz’s solution for defeating the Islamic State is an oxymoron: precision carpet bombing. Chris Christie wants to shoot down Russian planes and thinks World War III is already upon us. And Donald Trump is ready to order the military to commit war crimes like murdering innocent civilians because they are related to terrorists. By that standard, there are a number of people in San Bernardino who should be immediately executed. 

While many voters have bought into the conservative mantra that government is designed to waste taxpayers’ money—and perhaps wage the occasional war—having experience in power is useful when moving into the White House. Those with experience in governing understand that even the most powerful person on earth is constitutionally limited and must often work with others to get things done—that compromise is not a sign of weakness, but of maturity. And anyone who has overseen a government program knows, for instance, how prohibitively expensive and logistically impossible it would be to deport 11 million people, or that you cannot fund the government with a 10 percent flat tax inspired by tithing in the Bible.

Trump and Carson supporters would say having such a thin resume is why they like them; it means they’re untainted by Washington. But the voters who have elected every president since George Washington apparently realized the White House is no place for on-the-job training. 

Does America deserve a president who may not know the difference between hummus and Hamas? Or whose hand is on the nuclear trigger while an aide explains to him what the triad is? The world will begin to find out on February 1, when five one-hundredths of one percent of the American electorate will vote in the Iowa caucuses. It will likely be longer yet before it becomes clear, for the Republican candidate at least, whether experience matters.