2016 Elections

Sanders, Like Clinton, Has 'What It Takes'

Just getting this far in the race proves they could be effective presidents.


Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are trading swipes about each other's qualifications (or lack thereof) to be U.S. president. Both may be misinterpreting the credentials required.

Clinton fired the opening salvo when she assailed Sanders for fumbling an answer about his plan to break up the big banks:

"I think he hadn't done his homework and he'd been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn't really studied or understood, and that does raise a lot of questions."

Reacting less to the content of her comments than to a headline in the Washington Post -- "Clinton Questions Whether Sanders Is Qualified to Be President" -- Sanders issued a harsh response. He said that Clinton was the unqualified one because she has accepted campaign contributions from Wall Street, voted for the war in Iraq and supported "disastrous" trade deals.

QuickTake How the U.S. Elects Its Presidents

It's hard to see why a failure to describe the exact mechanics of as-yet unwritten complex financial regulation is a disqualifier. These are details that President Sanders wouldn't be expected to micromanage: Experts and political aides would hammer out the nuts and bolts, and politicians would try to push the legislation through Congress. The misconception that the president should be prepared to master everything  goes to the core of Clinton's message to voters: She should be picked because of her extensive legislative and executive experience. Sanders is right to point out that not everything in that experience reflects infallible judgment, yet that could be said of any political record, not just Clinton's.

Sanders is wrong, however, to suggest that Clinton's purported errors or judgment disqualify her for the presidency. Presidents make mistakes all the time, and they often are corrected by staffers, advisers and the system of checks and balances.

So what are the qualifications for the job? To me, any good definition should start with the questions Richard Ben Cramer asked in the author's note to his mammoth work on the 1988 presidential election, "What It Takes." 

"What in their backgrounds could give them that huge ambition, that kind of motor, that will and discipline, that faith in themselves? What kind of faith would cause, say, a dozen of these habitual winners to bend their lives and the lives dear to them to one hugely public roll of the dice in which all but one would fail?"

Cramer's "what it takes" is the ultimate qualification: The desire and ability to go out every day to prove that you're worthy -- and, at the end of that marathon, to have enough vigor, ambition and self-respect to perform in a high-stakes job that involves goal-setting, bargaining, winning and losing. I would argue that anyone who has lasted in the race as long as Clinton, Sanders, Ted Cruz and John Kasich clearly has that qualification. (Donald Trump may be a different matter: To him, the presidential campaign appears to be an extension of his lifelong labor of self-promotion.)

The quality of a campaign is the best proof of a candidate's qualifications. And in this race, voters are exposed to at least three excellent campaigns. Clinton's is exhaustively planned, with great attention paid to every detail, and the candidate herself has enough drive and resourcefulness to run a triathlon a day. Sanders, though I have seen him tired and hoarse -- he's not young, after all -- has a bulldog's determination, and he's seemingly unable to give up, a quality Americans value. He has been rewarded for this in the most recent primary elections. Cruz may be the most hard-working politician I have seen: He makes so many campaign stops and is so freshly convincing at each that he seems superhuman; his operation is based on both smart number-crunching and an ability to energize tens of thousands of volunteers. 

There shouldn't be any doubt that Clinton, Sanders and Cruz are as qualified as anyone could be. Superior qualifications won't determine the winner. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

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