Politics & Policy

Presidential Litmus Test

Competency in the White House.

Evangelical voters (I am one) are often accused of having a litmus test for presidential candidates: He or she must be pro-life, oppose same-sex marriage, and so on. Many liberals have their own litmus tests for candidates: support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, eliminating tax cuts, etc.

I’d like to propose a new litmus test for anyone running for president and seeking my support in 2008: competence. That’s right; my candidate to lead America must be competent. To be sure, I still want them to share my values; but they must also have proven competence to lead the largest enterprise on the planet.

One candidate recently quipped that “most people want a president who reminds them of the person they work with, not the person who laid them off.” While the joke had a certain populist ring and got a few laughs, it is an absurd proposition. I have yet to meet the person who wants their colleague in the next cubicle to be president of the United States of America. If someone isn’t qualified and capable of running the company I work for, why on earth would I want them running the country I live in?

For some reason, competence is a word we don’t hear enough in national elections. So here’s a simple competence test.

Suppose you woke up this morning to the news that you have inherited $10 million. However, your benefactor has stipulated the following condition for the money to be transferred to your account: You must hire a money manager from the following list of five candidates to oversee your new financial portfolio.

Your first option happens to be married to a former U.S. president and is now in her second term as New York’s junior senator.

Next is a lawyer and former state senator in Illinois who has served in the U.S. Senate for the past three years.

Then there is a former two-term Arkansas governor who, prior to that was a Baptist minister.

You also have the choice of a man who served two terms as mayor of New York City and once ran for the U.S. Senate before dropping out of the race.

Your next option has a distinguished 22-year military career and has represented Arizona for 20 years in the U.S. Senate. He is widely considered a true patriot for his service to our country.

Finally, there is a man who eliminated a $3 billion deficit in one term as governor of Massachusetts without raising taxes or borrowing money. This followed his rescue of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games where he turned a $379 million operating deficit into a handsome profit, mobilized 23,000 volunteers, and organized the largest security operation in the history of the world. Prior to that this candidate founded Bain Capital, one of the world’s most successful venture capital and investment companies which helped launch hundreds of other American companies and became a $10 billion company.

Who wouldn’t want as their personal money manager the candidate who has the most proven experience managing money — the most competent manager?

So why does so much of our election-year debate and commentary focus on characteristics and qualities other than competence? We tout a candidate’s speech-making prowess or another’s charm. We argue over which one can claim Ronald Reagan’s command of an audience or Bill Clinton’s political skill — as if we were conducting some sort of high-stakes American Idol audition.

It seems we apply the competence test more diligently in every other area of our lives than we do when choosing a president. We scrutinize resumes to find the most competent employees for our companies, the most qualified teachers for our schools, even the most experienced and competent ministers for our churches.

Not only would I choose governor Mitt Romney to manage a new-found personal inheritance, I did choose him over a year ago as my candidate for president. But I would choose him to lead almost any enterprise I can think of. If I were heading a search committee I would recruit him to turn around a university. He could do wonders for major charities like the American Red Cross which are struggling to make ends meet. Any business would be fortunate to have him in the CEO seat. Mitt Romney’s life has been a portrait of leadership and competence.

As an evangelical voter I join millions of others who evaluate the values of presidential candidates every four years. I want a president who most closely represents my values — a man or woman of character and integrity. But the job of America’s chief executive officer requires so much more than good character and values.

Our next president will be responsible for overseeing a $2.8 trillion budget and providing leadership to some 2 million employees. That’s about the size of the workforces of General Motors, General Electric, Citigroup, Ford Motor, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and AT&T combined.

Our Constitution allows any natural born citizen of 35 years of age who has lived in the United States for 14 years to seek the office of president. That means I qualify. But it does not make me qualified. There is a vast difference between qualifying and being qualified to hold the office currently up for grabs.

In some election cycles there are candidates who have proven business, management, and leadership experience but don’t necessarily share my values or morals. Then, there are usually candidates who practically mirror my personal values but lack real experience dealing with large budgets and solving complex problems. This dilemma always makes for a difficult choice and usually requires a healthy dose of pragmatism.

It is a rare election cycle — this may be the first in my lifetime — which offers a candidate that shares my values and has the experience and competence to actually be America’s chief executive. Thankfully, moral values and competence are not mutually exclusive.

I suspect no one can be fully qualified or prepared to be president of the United States; but shouldn’t he or she at least be the most competent of those running for the office?

Mark DeMoss is president of the DeMoss Group, an Atlanta-based public relations firm which works with evangelical organizations, and author of The Little Red Book of Wisdom. He is personally supporting Mitt Romney as a volunteer.

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