Voters made a call Tuesday that has been building for years when they chose to give the highest office in the land to a candidate without political or administrative experience, said Dr. Jim Guth, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science at Furman.
The 2016 presidential election was both a culmination of recent trends and a revision of almost every truism in the world of political science, Guth said. He spoke to about 150 people Wednesday as part of Furman’s High Noon lecture series, just hours after Republican Donald Trump clinched the electoral votes needed to win the presidency over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Guth, who has taught at Furman since 1973, said the past has always suggested a winning presidential candidate would emerge from one of a handful of key positions, including Vice President, U.S. Senator or Governor. History also suggested a winning presidential candidate would have deep roots in one political party and years of experience honing political skills.
“We have a new president who has absolutely no political experience whatever,” he said. “Donald Trump has shallow roots in almost every political party imaginable.”
It’s a tide that has been rising for years now, Guth said. President Obama himself is an early example, coming to the presidency out of limited political experience. But Guth said his concern is that while it’s not surgery, politics does require skills, and most of them are best developed in the context of political work.
Guth gave his audience, which might have come feeling anxious, plenty of moments to laugh, starting with his confession that he thought in the wee hours, as final votes came in, that he should have pleaded illness and backed out of the talk.
Most of his talk highlighted seismic shifts in presidential politics, from self-funding to campaigning via social media.
The 2016 election also marked a modern low in civility and manners, Guth said. Policy and issues were hard to find in all the flying mud. Because of that, it will be hard for the new president to claim a mandate to move forward on major policy changes.
“If you don’t talk about policies, you don’t have a mandate for them,” he said.
Guth said new U.S. presidents depend on a honeymoon period of approval to accomplish some of their most meaningful work.
“I am skeptical that we’re going to see that,” he said.
He is also concerned about who will fill Trump’s administration. Candidates more connected to their parties have a greater pool to draw from. And while there are many people from prior Republican administrations still available to work, many don’t support the president-elect.
“He doesn’t have a cornucopia of choices,” Guth said.
Finally, Trump’s own personality will present a challenge as he assumes the presidency. A president needs to sit and listen, to be patient and learn, Guth said, “something Mr. Trump does not seem to do well, according to all his friends and foes alike.”
Guth answered numerous questions after his talk, some of which are below and have been edited for length.
Q: Is this election a repudiation of both major parties and how can third parties have more access to the process?
Guth: More access for third parties would require fundamental changes at both the state and federal levels and that seems unlikely to happen.
Q: Can you explain the wisdom of the electoral college vs. the popular vote?
Guth: No (laughing). A change would require a constitutional amendment, which is unlikely.
Q: Did WikiLeaks play a role in the outcome of the election?
Guth: I think the revelations and the subsequent findings probably reinforced existing perceptions in both directions. It’s unlikely they generated a lot of new antipathy.
Q: Can Mr. Trump unilaterally put a 35 percent tariff on some imports as he has said he would do?
Guth: That would violate current trade agreements. But executive authority has been expanding in recent history. President Obama stretched this to the breaking point by using executive orders to make major policy changes. It’s hard to say what would happen if he [Trump] tried.
Q: How big of a role did the Supreme Court play in the election?
Guth: Exit poll data and surveys will tell us more about that in the days ahead. It’s likely that concern about nominations kept some Republicans in Trump’s camp when nothing else would have.
Q: Of all Mr. Trump’s grandiose claims, which is he most likely to attempt first?
Guth: If he’s smart, he’ll start with major infrastructure work, which people in both parties want and economists generally favor.
Q: How did the pollsters miss the outcome so badly?
Guth: They didn’t miss all that badly when you consider the margin of error and the fact that, as of right now, Clinton is winning the popular vote. Opinion polls used to be straightforward. You randomly dialed phone numbers, where approximately 70 percent of people reached were willing to respond and whose responses provided a highly representative sample. Today, between landlines and cell phones and a dismal nine percent response rate, it’s remarkable in some ways that we come as close as we do.
Q: Will Trump complete his term?
Guth: Some of my political scientist friends jokingly suggest he may tire of the procedures and obligations of the office and resign before the four years are up. Others, including Republicans, have tossed around ideas ranging up to impeachment depending on the actions he takes. It’s amazing what you hear in Republican circles concerning the ways of controlling Trump.
Q: Trump has said he’ll repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, on day one. Can he do that and how can the healthcare industry prepare to respond?
Guth: The ACA was designed to address a real problem, the large number of people in this country without healthcare coverage. While it made some progress, it’s a political artifact created with too many disparate pieces to mollify various groups. It’s not as effective as it could or should have been. If the legislation is repealed, I hope it would be replaced and not simply eliminated.
Q: What will draw the nation back together after the divisiveness of this election?
Guth: We need more willingness to think, to listen, and to engage with people who disagree with us in a thoughtful way. We need to consider that our ideas might not be correct and maybe somebody else has something to teach us.