Thursday, January 04, 2007

Clinton and "Experience"

Senator Hillary Clinton is more openly plotting her campaign for President and is apparently talking about the "inexperience" of her two main rivals for the Democratic nomination in 2008, John Edwards and Barack Obama.

Edwards served one term in the US Senate and left.

Obama has been in the Senate for two years, although he did serve for a time in the Illinois legislature.

But Clinton's elective political experience consists of having been in the Senate for six years.

Ann Althouse writes, in consideration of the thinness of Clinton's Senate resume:
The only way she can claim significantly more experience [than Obama] is if being the First Lady is supposed to count (or if Bill is running for co-President). That will be an awkward argument. I'll be interested in see how she looks, trying to say that with a presidential face. A 1-term Senator promoting herself on experience and padding her resume with First Lady service? Is this how the first woman will make it to President? If it's a battle of the firsts, shouldn't we lean toward the first black President, if he is the self-made man, rather than the first woman President, if she needs to stand on the shoulders of her husband? Really, how does she come off diminishing him for inexperience?
It is presumptuous for her to denigrate Obama's experience, given that she has less experience as an office holder than he has.

The only way that argument will resonate with voters is if they think of "experience" in terms of years of public visibility. But it's precisely Clinton's years of public visibility that create her greatest problem as a candidate. After all that time in the public spotlight, she's viewed negatively by a daunting percentage of voters, so much so that Democrats are pining for other choices.

What's interesting about the three current front runners for the Democrats in 2008 is that all of them have thin resumes, at least at the federal level. But Obama, a veteran of the Illinois legislature has the most time in elective political office.

Public office experience isn't everything, of course. Lincoln had served about a decade in the Illinois legislature and one term in the US House and had no executive experience, something that showed at the beginning of his term. (Obama's resume in 2007 is almost precisely the same as that of Lincoln's in 1860.) Washington had spent time in the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress. Eisenhower, though always a "political general," in the best sense of that term, had never held public office when he became president. Yet, history shows that their presidencies didn't turn out badly.

Conversely, some long-time officeholders were disastrous presidents. Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, James K. Polk, and Richard Nixon, among others, are unlikely to have their images chiseled into the sides of mountains.

There probably is little way of knowing how experience is going to play out in a presidency. I nonetheless think voters take it into consideration and vote against candidates they think have too little experience. Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the 2004-version of John Edwards would probably agree with me on that. (Of course, each of those candidates had other "issues" that we could go into, but inexperience as elected public officials played a role in their rejection by voters.)

One footnote on inexperience: George W. Bush had been governor of Texas for five-plus years when he was elected President in 2000. It was the only elective office he'd held before going to the White House. Americans love to elect governors President. They count experience as governor as the second-best indicator of fitness for the presidency. Only being a general or a war hero has, historically, been a surer ticket to the White House; twelve of our presidents have been generals. But even that's far from a sure thing...just ask General Wesley Clark.


Charlie said...

I remember Reagan's line in his debate with Walter Mondale in 1984: "...I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

The word "experience" is often used in political rhetoric to imply "youth and immaturity" in your opponent. Hillary has to differentiate herself in some way from the others. She's been around longer than either of them, which counts as experience in the language of politics, I guess.

None of the Democrat contenders have the experience of John McCain or Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, so it will make for an interesting match-up if, for instance, Obama ends up running against McCain.

An interesting post, Mark. Thanks!

Mark Daniels said...

You mention the experience of the three Republican frontrunners, Charlie. That's sort of interesting.

Only Romney has experience as a governor, which belaboring a point I've made many times before, is the gold standard of US presidential politics. However, that gubernatorial advantage may be somewhat mitigated in Romney's case.

No doubt for fear of almost certain defeat, he decided not to run for a second term in Massachusetts. (This is similar to Edwards' decision not to seek re-election in NC, where he would likely have been clobbered in 2000.)

As to the other two GOP frontrunners: McCain has no executive experience.

And in the case of Giuliani, Americans have never counted mayoral experience without the benefit of subsequently holding higher office as sufficient credentialing to be President.

(Off the top of my head, the only President I can think of who was a mayor was Grover Cleveland, who held the office in Buffalo after being sheriff of Erie County. I'm sure there must have been more former mayors who became President, but I can't think of any more. I'll have to look into that.)

It appears that whatever we all collectively decide in 2008, we're apt to break some precedents.

I'm not convinced that the apparent frontrunners in either party will be the nominees, though.