Presidential announcement season is upon us. Sen. Ted Cruz has jumped in the pool. Sen. Rand Paul is expected to join him next week. Sen. Marco Rubio will do the same thing the following week. Hillary Clinton will take her step “soon” according to staffers-in-waiting who are eager to switch from their personal Gmail accounts to the official campaign one.
Al Gore said that a presidential campaign is like a job interview. If that’s true, then when these candidates announce, we should hand them a few preliminary questions at the start of the process. After all, that’s even required of the average Starbucks employee. Presumably this job is harder.
So here are a few basic inquiries. These are not gotcha questions. They’re open-book questions. Candidates may refer to their notes, or their campaign biographies, as the case may be. Also, they can take their time. The first contest in Iowa isn’t for another 10 months.
1. What’s the biggest crisis you’ve faced in your professional life and how did you handle it?
Everyone agrees there is no real experience that can prepare a person for the presidency. This is not a reason to allow candidates to duck questions about experience though. I’m sure there’s nothing like the first time a quarterback plays in a Super Bowl, but that doesn’t keep us from looking at his previous games to come to some conclusion about his ability to handle the big game. One thing we know is that presidents face few easy decisions. Also, crises often hit early, whether it’s the Bay of Pigs or the downing of an EP-3 spy plane. Will a candidate know what it's like to be in a pinch? Will they know how to keep their head when everyone around them is losing theirs? This is the kind of question where a good answer can pretty much allow you to leave the remaining questions blank. For example, when Dwight Eisenhower was nominated he told the 1952 GOP convention: “I know something of the solemn responsibility of leading a crusade. I have led one.” That’s a pretty good résumé line. This question refers to “professional life,” so it need not only apply to political office. (Ben Carson once led a 70-member surgical team for 22 hours to separate conjoined twins. That would be a good thing to talk about here.)
2. What's the biggest personal crisis you’ve faced and how did you handle it?
We’ll probably never get candidates to answer this question—though several Republicans came close in 2011 at an Iowa forum hosted by the Family Leader and Democrats came close at the Sojourners forum in 2007. Personal moments matter because they offer a window into a candidate’s temperament, a quality anyone close to a president mentions as a key attribute for the job. It’s the equanimity and sense of self that helps them deal with uncertainty, chaos, and overwhelming pressure. These qualities are tested in personal crucibles in a different way than they are in professional circumstances. George W. Bush’s turn from alcohol to faith, for example, told us something about his mindset that was different than the challenges he’d faced in his professional life.
3. What’s your greatest political triumph?
This is an easy one for the politicians who are running because they’ve won elections. But they can’t just point to their own victories and move on. This question seeks to get at why they won, what they saw in the electorate that others did not, and what they learned about people along the way. Being president requires understanding the political landscape. A candidate’s answer to this question will give us some understanding about how he or she will read the currents when they take office.
4. What’s your greatest governing triumph?
Another way to ask this question: What bill did you pass or program did you enact that you are most proud of and why? This is a simple enough question (for everyone except Sen. Ted Cruz) and tells us something about whether the candidates can actually work within the political system they’re hoping to lead.
5. What experience have you had that will serve you well as president?
Not every candidate will have a governing triumph they can talk about. But surely they’ve done something with their lives they can boast about. Cruz, for example, said his successful career as Texas’ solicitor general demonstrated his capacity to be president. But the point of this question is not just to dig up their shining moments—which the candidates freely tell anyone who gets in their path—but to hear how a candidate explains how those skills apply to the office they hope to hold. House Speaker John Boehner, for example, said that his life working in a bar was great training for dealing with his House Republicans. This not only tells us something about Boehner’s skill set, but also tells us how he sees his job.
6. What historical presidential moment tells us the most about your vision of the office?
This is something like asking a Home Depot employee about their greatest home improvement project. Have these candidates studied the job they hope to hold? For a president, history is like a user manual for a job no one can be fully prepared for. That not only tells us if a candidate is thinking about the actual business of being president (Newt Gingrich was particularly good at this), but whether they have a fantastical vision of the office or a more realistic one. Gov. Scott Walker, for example, has said that Reagan’s move against the air traffic control workers sent a message to Communist leaders in Russia. Russian experts disagree. Debating just that simple question would tell us a lot about the Wisconsin governor.
7. Tell us a joke.
Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates said temperament and a sense of humor are the two key presidential attributes. “I think a sense of humor and a sense of the absurd reflects a balance and a perspective on the world that is very healthy,” said Gates when I asked him about presidential attributes last year. “Of all the presidents that I worked for, there are only two who had no discernible sense of humor: Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. I rest my case.”
No candidate can answer all of these questions completely or perfectly, but at least we can measure how far short they fall from the ideal. Then from there we can judge whether they have the qualities to be the 45th president. Or, the candidates can offer a lively argument for why these questions don’t make sense and other questions should be asked. As voters attending town hall meetings these questions are there for you to ask, too. Any time you think the media has gotten too wrapped up in the horse race or the frivolous kerfuffle of the day you can ask one of these Dudley-Do-Right questions.
On many job applications there is also a box in which applicants can tell their prospective employer any other significant facts they think will help them get the job. It’s an important addendum meant to capture characteristics that might be missed by a necessarily limited form. We don’t have that space here because that’s essentially what the rest of the campaign is for.