Sunday, December 16, 2007

Clinton, Obama, and the Experience Issue

With Illinois Senator Barack Obama in a virtual tie with her in Iowa polls before that state's presidential caucus, Senator Hillary Clinton and her husband are claiming that Obama is dangerously lacking in experience which the New York senator apparently possesses. The New York Times reports that former President Bill Clinton says that electing Obama would be "rolling the dice" for the United States.

This is a curious argument for Clinton and her campaign to make.

The reason it's so strange is that it's so at odds with the facts. Clinton began her first term in the Senate, her first political office, in January, 2001. It's true that Obama didn't enter the Senate until January, 2005. But by that time, he had already served ten years in the Illinois legislature, meaning that he has roughly double the experience in elective political office that Clinton has.

The only way that Clinton's experience 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 her time in the public spotlight, she's viewed negatively by a daunting percentage of voters. I personally can't recall a candidate being nominated by a major political party with as much hard opposition--upwards of 40% in most national polls--as Clinton. Her "experience" then, could be a deficiency in many voters' eyes.

What's interesting about the three current front runners for the Democrats in Iowa--Clinton, Obama, and former one-term Senator from North Carolina, John Edwards--is that all of them have thin federal elective resumes. The experience of each appears to pale by comparison to their less popular rivals like Senator Joseph Biden, Senator Christopher Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson.

Elective political experience, it should be pointed out, isn't always a great predictor of an excellent presidency. George Washington spent limited time in the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress before becoming president. Dwight Eisenhower, though always a "political general," in the best sense of that term, had never held public office when he became president. They developed the skills necessary for the presidency while becoming two of the country's three greatest generals. (The third, Ulysses S. Grant, was a disastrous president.)

Nor is federal elective experience or even executive experience of much use in predicting who will perform well in the White House. When he became president in 1861, for example, Abraham Lincoln had served about a decade in the Illinois legislature and one term in the US House, back during the Polk Administration, and had no executive experience. (Obama's resume in 2007 is almost precisely the same as that of Lincoln's in 1860.)

On the other hand, some long-time officeholders were disastrous presidents. Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, Martin Van Buren, 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.)

Of course, Clinton is pushing the experience issue, something she spoke about earlier in the year but had not emphasized in recent months, because the momentum of the Iowa caucus campaign is shifting. Clearly, Obama is on the rise and Clinton is throwing this argument out to voters in an effort to stop her chief rival. Whether Obama can beat Senator Clinton may depend on her ability to convince voters that, as she's quoted as saying in that New York Times piece, she's been vetted and that electing Senator Obama to the presidency would be too dicey.

Though her argument doesn't square with history, voters in Iowa may buy it. If they do, Clinton will likely have done all she needs to do to secure the Democratic nomination and put Obama away. That's because Democrats in 2008, like Democrats in 2004, are so desperate to win the White House that New Hampshire Democrats, five days later, are likely to coalesce around the winner in Iowa, foregoing further intra-partisan wrangling in favor of creating a united front to face the Republican nominee in the fall. Democrats may be rolling the dice if they nominate Obama, as President Clinton suggests. But right now, his wife is betting her campaign on a different throw of the dice, her assertion that she is the experienced candidate for the presidency that her party wants and her country needs.

[This was posted last night at The Moderate Voice.]


Unknown said...

For the definitive answer to Obama's "Experience" issue, google "Judge Him by His Laws" by Charles Peters (1/4/08 newspaper article in Washington Post).

Mark Daniels said...

Thanks for leading me to the Peters piece.

Peters spent time as a state legislator in West Virginia. I spent time--one year--working for the Ohio House of Representatives. Like him, I have immense respect for people who get bills through a state legislative body. The lack of much reporting about what goes on in state capitols heightens the difficulty of pushing through any reform legislation, whether it comes from the right or the left. With little spotlight shining, lobbyists and interest groups have more latitude. They can get away with more, including stonewalling earnest legislators.

Whether Obama should become president is a judgment the entire country is likely to make this fall. But that his experience in the Illinois legislature would be a valuable asset, I don't doubt.

Thanks for your comment.

Mark Daniels