Ten Things to Remember as the Presidential Campaign Season Gets Into Full Swing

I’m not telling you whom to vote for. I’m not predicting who will win their party’s nomination. I’m not giving you a primer on which issues to consider as you vote in a caucus or primary (several months from now) or as you vote (over a year from now) in the presidential election. Before you think through any of that, keep these ten things in mind.

1. We’re not electing a king. It always amazes me how many Americans, even those who ostensibly believe in checks and balances and limited government, are eager to believe the wildest promises our politicians make. More than that, we almost demand that they make them. But really, is the president responsible for creating jobs, restoring the family, and defeating every bad guy? Even if we want him or her to do those things, we aren’t voting for Dictator of the United States. The president doesn’t make the laws. He (or she) shouldn’t have vast control over the economy. He (or she) cannot unilaterally fix the environment or schools or roads, let alone your marriage or your sense of being underappreciated in life. Let’s be realistic.

2. Elections matter. Lest you think the first point was too cynical, I believe elections do make a difference. Sometimes a big difference. Besides signing (or vetoing) legislation and besides being the Commander in Chief, the president has a huge bully pulpit. Surely, Obama’s evolution on gay marriage was not insignificant in pushing public opinion swiftly in that direction. More than that, the president appoints thousands of judges, justices, and bureaucrats who will make really important decisions for the next decades.

3. Character matters. Yes, all our leaders have clay feet. And to be sure, presidents can be decisive leaders and skilled politicians even if they are dubious individuals. But as Christians, surely we know better than to discount character. Of course, we aren’t voting for pastor of the United States. And yet, those who are not faithful with little will not be faithful with much. If you lie, cheat, bully, and break promises in your private life, why should we expect better with your public life? If at all possible, we should vote for a president whose moral compass is trustworthy and whose personal integrity is exemplary.

4. The best predictor of future performance is past performance. Politicians make promises. Lots of promises. They also morph to fit in with the electorate they need at the moment (e.g., Iowa, New Hampshire, the South, Independents, moderates). So don’t make a decision based on the best debate moment. Look at what the candidate has stood for and how they have conducted themselves over the years. No doubt, people can change and can change their minds. But who they have been is still the best indication of who they are and more accurate than who they promise to be.

5. You almost certainly will not have a beer with the next president. The candidate who passes the “I’d rather have a beer with this person” test almost always wins. We like to vote for people we’d like to hang out with. Fair enough, but 99.9% of us won’t hang out with the next president. So figure out who people are, what they believe, and how they would govern.

6. The big picture matters more than all the details. Presidents are not omniscient. Candidates even less so. Do you know everything about how to do your job before you have it? Of course not, and I bet your job is far less complicated than being President of the United States. So don’t except the candidates to know everything about everything. A thousand things will happen from 2017-2021 that no president can anticipate. Again, figure out who people are, what they believe, and how they would govern. Many of the details can’t yet be known.

7. The candidates will say something stupid. They all will. Even your favorite. How could they not? They will be on t.v. every single day from now until the inauguration (or until they drop out of the race). They will be in dozens of debates (at least the Republicans will), give hundreds of speeches and interviews, and meet thousands of people. All of this with a camera in their face at all times (well, for most of them). It’s really amazing they don’t make more mistakes than they do. Let’s discern between an honest slip up, gotcha questions, and actual revealing comments.

8. The media will do very little to help you understand the issues and what each candidate believes. I thought the first debate was one of the best I’ve seen in terms of specific, hard-hitting questions. But overall, no matter the network, the media is going to overwhelmingly report on the horse race not the difference between the horses. It’s a big reality t.v. drama where Iowans vote losers off the island. Getting to substance is your responsibility. The media won’t do it for you.

9. It is extremely unlikely that either party will nominate someone with no political experience. Not a wish, just a prediction I can make with almost complete certainty. Do you know how many presidents we’ve elected without a high military rank or experience in electoral politics? Two. And both of these men had previous political experience (even if they hadn’t been elected to anything): William Howard Taft was a judge and the Solicitor General before becoming President, and Herbert Hoover was the Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Harding and Coolidge. Do you know the last time either party nominated someone who had never been a governor, senator, representative, or vice president? The year was 1952 and that man had recently saved all free peoples of the world from totalitarian tyranny. So, yeah, Eisenhower is kind of the exception that proves the rule. Besides Ike, you have to go back to Wendell Willkie–the dark horse candidate who won the Republican nomination in 1940 and lost 85% of the electoral college vote to Roosevelt–to find a major nominee who had not held elected office. And Willkie, who was third on the first ballot at the Republican convention, could never pull off such an upset with the way the nominating process works today. Long story short: candidates with zero political experience are almost never nominated, and nominees without a military record or electoral experience virtually never win.

10. The system could be much worse. Sure, there is plenty to complain about. The presidential campaign seems interminably long. It takes a boatload of money to stay in the race. We are all stupider because of Twitter and the 24-hours news cycle. And even the best debates are hardly Lincoln-Douglas material. But we do get a say. We do get a vote. We basically get the presidents we deserve. I’d rather have candidates pandering for our votes than dictating the terms of our surrender. Yes, if you want to be president it helps to be rich and famous, but you also have to hang out in New Hampshire all winter and shake the hand of every farmer in Iowa. I like that. There are good reasons to be frustrated with both parties. But with only two major parties, it’s hard to completely ignore most viewpoints. You can’t build a coalition without trying to appeal to a lot of diverse groups of people. So is the system broken? I’m sure it is, but I’m also sure there are more ways than we can imagine to fix it even worse.