Are GOP candidates qualified to be president?

As conservatives evaluate the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination it is helpful to put each of their backgrounds in the context of past successful or unsuccessful chief executives.

The author of the recently released Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama, Steven F. Hayward, described some of the attributes that are typical of great modern presidents and poor ones at a recent Heritage Foundation lecture.

Hayward said that modern textbooks tend to treat the presidency “as if it was just another CEO position.” He said that there is a lack of focus on how well the president actually upholds the Constitution and too much focus placed on charisma. Hayward rated the presidents on the “A” to “F” scale based on their upholding of the Constitution, keeping the reach of the Executive branch within the limits of the Constitution, and Supreme Court appointments of judges who are most likely to uphold the Constitution according to its original meaning.

HUMAN EVENTS asked Hayward about what the qualifications are for the presidency, and specifically whether former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s business background and Harvard degrees were positive presidential traits. Hayward answered, “Our last president had a Harvard MBA, our current president has a Harvard Law degree, and if Mitt Romney is elected, he will have both.”

“I generally think that people with a pure business background are probably not well suited to being president,” Hayward continued, “I think the best ones we’ve had are the ones who have had executive experience on the state level, and generals have executive experience.”

“The poorest ones are the ones who were Senators or House members because mostly what they do is make speeches, they don’t actually make decisions,” said Hayward.

In the 20th century nearly all of the presidents had received an Ivy League or equivalent education. Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama went to Harvard, William Taft and George H.W. Bush went to Yale, Herbert Hoover went to Stanford, and Jimmy Carter went to Annapolis. 

However, despite an Ivy League education being one of the most common traits for ascension to the presidency, this does not mean it is the best qualification. Hayward indicated that the best presidents are not necessarily ones with an Ivy League education, but ones who are “largely self educated.” Hayward said that the self education of Harry Truman, who never finished college but was a voracious reader of American history, and Ronald Reagan, who attended tiny Eureka College and read the great works of conservative philosophy, “owed their political imagination to their own self-education.”

In context of Hayward’s rating system, as well as his comments about what individuals are well qualified for office, I will rate each of the current Republican candidates according to those criteria.

Ron Paul

Texas Rep. Ron Paul is a unique candidate not only in his libertarian views, but in the fact that he would be the only former medical doctor to be elected chief executive if he takes the presidency this year.

Paul has been a consistent advocate of returning the American government back to the principles and the specific rules set out by the Constitution. Paul has spoken out against judicial activism and in support or a strict interpretation of the Constitution, but also believes that the power of Supreme Court Justices has gone too far. Paul said in 2005, “Our Founders would find it inconceivable that a handful of unelected, unaccountable federal judges can decide social policy for the entire nation.”

Paul spoke harshly of the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, who was a George W. Bush nominee that lacked strong qualifications and a concrete Constitutional philosophy. She was eventually rejected by both Democrats and Republicans for the nomination.

For his undergraduate study, Paul went to the tiny liberal arts college, Gettysburg College, in Pennsylvania and attended Duke for medical school. Paul clearly has a wide breadth of self-taught knowledge as he frequently talks about the economic philosophy of Frederic Bastiat and once publicly gave former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani a list of books to read in the 2008 Republican presidential primary.

As for his electoral experience, Paul has been a Congressman for the duration of his career and has never been an executive. He has mostly been able to make principled stands in Congress without having to feel the consequences of those decisions. Very rarely has a Congressman gone on to become president without executive or administrative experience. It is hard to compare Paul to any former president because he is so unique, but the closest may well be his own favorite president, Grover Cleveland. Cleveland was a limited-government conservative, Democrat who believed in the gold standard for backing currency, free-trade, and a bare-bones military to be used strictly for national defense.

Paul does well as far as defending the Constitution as well as on his embracing of Supreme Court Justices who adhere to the Constitution. However, due to the total lack of executive experience in government or in the military, where he did not rise above the rank of captain, there should be an overall drop in his qualification to be the president.

Overall grade: C

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been constantly noted as the frontrunner in the GOP nomination race and is given credit for appearing to be competent, at least.

Romney has a strong business background that he frequently touts as one of his main qualifications for being president. He received an MBA from Harvard Business School and rose to become the CEO of Bain Capital, which is a management consulting firm. Romney also worked closely with the International Olympic Committee to bring the Winter Olympics to Salt Lake City in Utah. Romney was given some accolades for his role in the Salt Lake City Olympic Games and he even wrote a book about it. There have been, however, at least some claims that his role in the Olymics has been overstated.

Spending one term as a governor in Massachusetts, Romney had some notable accomplishments, but a mixed record. He passed a health care program that is similar to Obama’s but was Constitutional because it was on the state level. He balanced the budget in a strongly Democratic state, but often had to resort to fee increases and his 19 tax decreases were mostly just minor sales tax holidays. He did successfully manage a crisis on the “Big Dig” road project and helped bring the massive, costly project to a fairly successful conclusion.

Romney stated at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that he did not come to conservatism through his reading of classical conservative literature and philosophical tracts, but through his family values.

“There are college students at this conference who are reading Burke and Hayek.  When I was your age, you could have told me they were infielders for the Detroit Tigers.  Some of you work in think tanks or follow the writings of prominent leaders.  Some of you have worked in government or labored on the front lines of conservative causes. I salute you all,” Romney continued, “My path to conservatism came from my family, my faith, and my life’s work.”

As for the nomination of judges, by Executive Order, Romney created a Judicial Nominating Commission which would select judges based on merit and qualifications rather than ideology. Romney also expressed his views as a “strict constructionist” of the Constitution.

Romney has proved himself to be an effective manager and capable governor of a state, but because of the lack of clear-cut underpinnings to his conservative philosophy and mostly Ivy League and big business background he must be dropped according to the criteria. The most similar presidential comparison may be Herbert Hoover, who was an engineer that helped restore and feed Europe after the devastation of WWI. Hoover, however, struggled with the presidency and never connected to the people in the age of radio.

Overall grade: B-

Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has spent most of his life in politics, with occasional interludes into teaching, writing, and speaking on cable news shows.

Gingrich went to Emory College for his undergraduate work and to Tulane to earn his Ph.D. Gingrich then went on to be a professor at West Georgia College, but eventually turned to politics when he went on to serve in the House of Representatives from 1979 until 1999.

Gingrich created the Conservatives for Opportunity Society, which pushed conservative ideas in Congress, and he worked his way into leadership positions, eventually becoming the Speaker of the House in the “Republican Revolution of 1994”. Gingrich passed a large amount of legislation, including much of the Contract with America. In it was the Reagan idea of the balanced budget amendment, which was a Constitutional way of controlling spending, but it never passed.

At no point has Gingrich held an executive position, and has mostly championed causes and fought for legislation rather than manage a large organization. While he successfully led Republicans in the House after nearly a half-century of being in the minority, he was forced out of his position in 1999.

Undoubtedly, Gingrich is a highly self-educated man. Beyond reading a huge number of books in diverse areas of study, which he often reviews on Amazon, Gingrich has written many history books and founded ideas oriented organizations.

Gingrich has backed judicial appointments that strictly adhere to the Constitution, but has recently mentioned that relying on appointments to change the ideology of the court may not be enough. He has advocated for the elimination of some judicial districts, including the 9th Circut Court of Appeals and for the other branches to also make Constitutional interpretations.

James A. Garfield in 1880 would be the most comparable to Gingrich because he was a teacher and then a member of Congress. Garfield was a highly educated reformer who wanted to enact civil service reforms. Garfield was a strong backer of civil right for black Americans, which is similar to how Gingrich advocated for the “New South” and has always promoted opportunities for black Americans through small businesses and education.  There have not been any presidents in the 20th or 21st centuries to have gone straight from the House to the White House.

While Gingrich has a strong educational background and firm underpinnings to his conservative philosophy he has never held and executive position serving in the government and has never even been in the military. While he clearly is an imaginative man of bold ideas, judgment and potentially catastrophic policy ideas that could undermine the Constitution hurt him in his rating.

Overall grade: B-

Rick Santorum

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has had a long career in Pennsylvania politics. He received an undergraduate and law degree from Penn State and an MBA from the University of Pittsburg. He practiced law before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1991 and then the U.S. Senate in 1994. After losing in an 18-point landslide election in the 2006 Santorum became a lobbyist and then a commenter on various news shows.

Santorum is upfront about his socially conservative views, but often puts them in context of federalism and the Constitution. For instance, Santorum said that he believes that states have the Constitutional right to ban contraceptives at the state level even if he would not do so and says that gay marriage should be a state level issue unless there is an amendment to ban it at the federal level.

On the courts Santorum has also mentioned that he would consider eliminating the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals because it is too radical like Gingrich. He is also a defender of the strict interpretation of the Constitution, but believes that some judicial decisions should be overturned.

In an interview on Meet the Press, Santorum said that after declaring he would work against the California Prop 8 decision, which voided a California amendment to make gay marriage illegal in the state, “I would do the same thing I would with Roe v. Wade, which I would seek to try and overturn it. I think judicial tyranny is a serious issue in this race and this country. And we need judges who respect the people’s voice. Let the people decide with respect to what the constitution says, if in fact they would go through a constitutional amendment process.”

It is rare for a Republican Senator to move on to the White House, the last one being Warren G. Harding in 1920, who had served as a senator and lieutenant governor in Ohio, and he was also a newspaper editor. Harding was a dark horse presidential nominee that was selected at a brokered convention. He went on to turn the nation’s economy around after the depression in 1920-21, but his administration was rife with corruption and crony capitalism.

Santorum’s background of defending the Constitution, American Exceptionalism and the Declaration of Independence is strong. He lacks the kind of executive experience that usually indicates competency in running the government and has no military record to counterbalance it. Santorum has championed many causes in the House and Senate, but has also shown that he can compromise to get some goals achieved, so he receives a slight bounce in his rating.

Overall grade: C+