Sanders vs. Clinton: Who's qualified to be president?

Sanders: Clinton is not qualified to be president
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Story highlights

  • Paul Waldman: Sanders, Clinton sparring over who's more qualified to be president. But what does make a candidate qualified?
  • Waldman: Truth is, broad vision, like Sanders', and grasp of details, like Clinton's, both key. But voters only get to choose one candidate

Paul Waldman is a senior writer with The American Prospect, a left-leaning magazine, and a blogger for The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Many uncomplimentary things have been said about Hillary Clinton during this presidential campaign, but until now no one has said she isn't qualified to hold the presidency. Indeed, love her or hate her, it's hard to think of a candidate in recent history with more qualifications than she has.

But that's what Bernie Sanders is now saying as the primary contest between the two gets decidedly less friendly, which should lead us all to ask just what constitutes a qualification for the most important job on Earth.
    This all began when Sanders gave an interview to the New York Daily News, in which, his critics say, he failed to display a depth of knowledge on issues, even some that are at the center of his campaign. Clinton, nothing if not a dutiful student from childhood to the present day, reacted by saying that Sanders "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."
    Paul Waldman
    Someone apparently told Sanders that Clinton had called him "unqualified" (in fact, though she was pressed by interviewers to say just that, she carefully avoided making the charge), so he responded that she's the unqualified one, based on decisions she has made that he disagrees with.
    Does either one of them have a case? The truth is that both of them are perfectly qualified to be president, at least by the standards of those who have occupied the office before. But they would bring very different styles to the office.
    Clinton has not only been a senator and a Cabinet secretary (not to mention a particularly involved first lady), but also is without question the wonkiest person running this year. She won't need a refresher on almost any issue area she'll have to confront as president. Sanders, in contrast, is a politician motivated much more by a broad vision than by the details of policy. That's evident not just in his campaign but in his entire career.
    While he has been able to work with his colleagues to successfully pass amendments here and there and help his constituents, in Congress Sanders has mostly been a gadfly, trying to push the national conversation, and the Democratic Party, to the left.
    That's how his presidential campaign started, too: as an argument from the left about a fundamentally different vision than the ones everyone accepts as within the bounds of practical possibility. But then he began gaining more and more support, particularly from young people -- precisely because of his idealism. At that point, he had to produce the goods, and that's where things got complicated.
    So over the course of the campaign, Sanders has been criticized many times for the details of his plans, and not always just because they're too far left for some people. His lack of deep engagement with policy was evident in that Daily News interview, when he admitted multiple times that he didn't know something he was being asked about ("It's something that I have not studied, honestly," "I don't know the answer to that," "You're asking me a very fair question, and if I had some paper in front of me, I would give you a better answer").
    He seemed to say he'd restrict trade with any country that doesn't have "roughly equivalent to the wages and environmental standards in the United States," which would mean we wouldn't trade with most of the world (and that would be devastating to many poor countries); he was vague about exactly how he'd break up large banks and prosecute bank executives for fraud; he said he wanted to "do away with the straw man provision, where you can buy a gun legally and then sell it to somebody who's a criminal" (straw purchases are already illegal); and when asked about riding the New York subway, he mentioned getting a token; tokens went out of use 13 years ago.
    No one thinks Sanders is a Trump-level ignoramus, but it's plain that as president he wouldn't be obsessed with the details of policy. But that might not be a bad thing. Jimmy Carter was notoriously consumed with minutia, down to personally approving all requests to use the White House tennis court. Whether he would have been a better president had he been more interested in the big picture is hard to say, but success in the Oval Office is not dependent on a grasp of every policy detail; there are thousands of staffers for that.
    On the other hand, a president who doesn't know enough is also a danger. We saw how George W. Bush's inexperience in Washington allowed him to be manipulated by his vice president, and how his lack of curiosity about even basic policy questions led him to see inherently complicated problems (like invading a Middle Eastern country) as fundamentally simple, where unintended consequences were nothing to worry about.
    The truth is that a president needs both a broad vision and a grasp of the particulars, to put that vision into practice. It's a tall order for any one politician. There are probably Democrats who wish they could take some of each from Sanders and Clinton, but they'll have to choose one or the other.