How it used to be
Growing up in a Miami suburb in the 1960's and '70's, I loved American politics. I was too young to remember anything about the Kennedy administration other than the moment when, returning from an otherwise ordinary November school day, I saw my mother watching the news on TV in her bedroom, covering those first few hours after the president's assassination. It's one of my earliest memories. I did not know much about the president except that he was the most important man in the country. The fact that he had been suddenly killed was confusing, but the fact that there was such a man - the leader of us all - was, to my young imagination, far more thrilling than his death was horrible.
Fast forward a few election cycles later, as the LBJ era came to an end, my understanding was a bit further along. Being older, I now understood from the Vietnam war - and corresponding domestic unrest - that the most important person in the country's government was capable of making extremely serious mistakes. But the idea of being elected to the only national office, and having a position of such immense responsibility, still intrigued me. By that time of my life, I began to understand how the Presidency was the American equivalent of what Benjamin Disraeli famously called, upon his elevation to prime minister, being "atop of the greasy pole." A lot of people want to clamor up that pole but only a handful make it to the very top. A realistic chance at achieving that status requires careful reconnaissance - strategizing; alliance-building; above all, respect for a process that represents the culmination of one's career, both in deciding the point at which to attempt the climb and figuring out how to succeed at getting all the way to the top.
Around that time, there was a board game out called "Mr. President." Of course, few people back then would have stopped to ponder the inherent sexism of its title, or the fact that among the many candidates players could choose from, to select a presidential and vice-presidential team to run against the other players' teams, there was only one "person of color" and no one of the "opposite sex." I remember feeling frustrated that even though I persuaded my parents to acquire this game for the family, I could not find anyone to play it with me. Thus, we would play Monopoly, or Stratego instead, something that still seems true to life.
The way it looks now
If you consider where we are in presidential politics nearly a half century later, it is obvious that things have changed and in many ways for the good. America is a far more diverse country now and its politicians reflect that. The recent New York Times insert on the "women of the 116th Congress" shows how both genders are well-represented. The broad diversity of ethnic background and national origin represented is a huge positive as well. America may never be that "melting pot" of immigrants from across the world that our middle school civics class teachers would tell us about (too bad they don't teach that class anymore, even if it included a few glorious lies) but at least in the Halls of Power, most (if not all) of America's ethnicities can establish their representation.
But there is one thing I believe has changed for the worse in American politics, and that is there are no rules anymore - spoken or unspoken. Rules serve a purpose because they help establish conceptual clarity in a system, but the fact that they have been mostly thrown to the wayside is evident from the flood of people now running for President. Of course, most of the people who have thrown their hats into the ring thus far have no more than a snowball's chance in a broiler on full blast of starting a serious climb toward the top of the greasy pole before their candidacies melt and disappear. That, in and of itself, is no big deal. But the unfortunate thing is that there is no sense of precedence in feeling when is the right time to grasp for the "brass ring" (to switch metaphors from the "greasy pole") based on how far one has progressed in the steady advancement of one's career toward the ultimate summit of political power.
Of course, it was never entirely impossible for people who did not build long careers in elected office to become successful public servants, and even rising to the Presidency. Excluding the present occupant of the White House - who never was a public servant and arguably, is still not one now - there have been a few fast track successes. Woodrow Wilson went from being a long-serving president of Princeton University to two short years as governor of New Jersey before finding his way into the White House. There are a few others as well, who may have seemed to come out of the blue in terms of national prominence, such as Herbert Hoover or even Abraham Lincoln. But even John Kennedy, while comparatively a very young Commander-in-Chief, had been in national politics for nearly 15 years when he took on that role in 1960. So how is it that usually, experienced, seasoned, nationally well-known leaders were successful in most presidential elections? Mainly, it was a process whereby reputations were earned the long and hard way, building a record of accomplishments into a ticket of entry into the rarefied club of nationally-known political figures. Lyndon Johnson, who became a major source of campaign funding for Democratic members of Congress with Texas construction business money helping sway his influence, and who was party leader in the Senate when Kennedy selected him as his running mate, comes to mind.
Even in the last few election cycles, for better or worse - and I would argue the worse is just as significant as the better - the process feels like it started to break down. Barack Obama ascended to the Presidency in 2008 after being a "virtual unknown" just four years earlier, with less than a single term in the Senate and a few turns before that as an Illinois legislator under his belt. (The incongruities of whether he proved up to the task during his tenure may reflect that.) But his story was still the exception. Four years before that, John Kerry was "reporting for duty" as a nominee, having long become well known from his prominent career in the Senate. Similarly, John McCain and Bill Bradley ran four years before, with McCain basing his candidacy on being a "reformer with results" over a long Senate career. Four years later, of course, Hillary Clinton called in her chits to clear the Democratic field but in some ways, her 2016 campaign felt like a celebratory aberration: the first woman to be anointed as a major party nominee because she had the closest connections to it through her husband, and her cabinet appointments and Senate election derived from that and her own policy making intelligence. She had been the longest at it, and clearly longed for it the most.
But now, I would argue, the wheels have come off the bus. The presidential candidate selection and nominating process, for both major parties, is beyond systematic comprehension.
The gap between the grasps and the mantle
Put aside the Republican side, which saw 17 candidates in 2016 anxious for the opportunity to succeed Obama. That party is now firmly under the control of Trump, who had no appreciable political power before his sudden populist rise, beginning in 2015. This year, everyone in the Democratic party seems to want to run, with the list already staggeringly long. There are a few clearly leading and impressively accomplished representatives of the centrist and left wings of the party (Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris come to mind) but there are also a plenty more whose claims to readiness for elevation to the national stage seems highly tenuous at best. There are even a few more - such as Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson - whose Democratic "brand" is at best confusing, if not downright dubious.
There are even more potential candidates in the Democratic field - Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden in particular - who are likely to run and who will no doubt contend they have stood the test of time. But in Sanders' case, he always eschewed party leadership, and for Biden, while he made a competent Vice President, it's hard to see his vision for the role apart from his claim that he deserves it because he is the "most qualified." That in itself is unlikely to be overly inspiring to the many young, hopeful voters who came out for the charismatic Obama or the older, alarmed voters who embraced the demagogic Trump.
Why is this happening? Apart from believing that Trump is a highly flawed president (which everyone knows) and therefore very vulnerable in terms of his re-election chances (which Democrats hope), the problem - if it is a problem - is that the power of party politics to drive the choice of America's president appears to have collapsed. There are fewer "single sources of truth" for campaign funding that would make it possible to run a serious campaign (now, everyone can try to go for Citizens United dark money or hope they can crowdsource the funding). There is no "old guard" party leadership anymore that separates the wheat from the chaff and helps tell those who are potentially wheat to await your turn. There are now key primaries nearly everywhere, not just in a few strategic states. And, for the Democrats in particular, there is no nucleus of leadership that has not just moral sway, but undisputed political clout. Sure, Nancy Pelosi is great at fundraising, but she is in the last few years of her career, having agreed not to continue as Speaker of the House beyond 2022 - and Chuck Schumer is, well, just Chuck Schumer. These are not epic powerhouses of insider political persuasion anymore. And, as for the last sitting Democratic president, Barack Obama never offered much help at carrying down ticket races anyway. There is little reason to believe he will have much of a role in shaping his party's direction toward who among the best and brightest of its next generation of leaders should be "the one," like the Kennedy clan did for him.
In perspective, should we care?
Does this really matter, anyway? I would contend that it does, for a reason that returns me to the beginning of this post. It has to do with all those boys and girls who may someday be interested in participating in politics.
Running for office has always been a messy affair and I lost my appetite for being in politics when the Watergate scandal hit. It was at a time when I wore my hair wonderfully long (I wish I still had that much of it now) and my increasing desire to think for myself convinced me I did not want to think "like those politicians." That was an unfortunate era, but it was not the beginning of the end of the system. This feels more like maybe it is, because the perception of an orderly political process of presidential elections - one that brings up leaders into the national spotlight for sound reasons, based on demonstrable experiences that at least arguably prepare them for the "Highest Office in the Land" - is clearly frayed. And yet, it is part and parcel of a stable, mature and well-functioning system of democratic government.
So yes, it matters, because you don't want to put a bridle on a pony that will never be able to pull a heavy coach. It matters because in American politics, today's presidential field seems full of ponies, with none able to show clearly why the rest of us should consider them healthy horses in their prime, ready for the challenge of pulling that heavy coach. And if they do succeed in getting the chance to pull it, because the process just happened to tip in their favor, what then? As the current person in the White House continues to prove so depressingly well, our system of government can easily be led astray by ill-prepared leaders who are not up to the monumental tasks they are nonetheless all too anxious - and yet not ready - to take on.