Monday, January 28, 2008

Presidential Experience: Who Needs It?

Every time anybody talks about the presidential race, the subject of experience comes up. I'm not sure what "experience" means in this context, so I'm going to "think out loud" by writing about my thoughts.

One of the discussion points always is: Who has it and who doesn't? Hillary Clinton claims she has it. Lots of people seem to think that John McCain has it. Rudy Giuliani says Rudy Giuliani has it.

Everybody but Barack claims Obama doesn't have it.

So just what is Experience?

Well, first off, nobody in this race has presidential experience. That we can all agree on, I think. Now, if Dick Cheney entered the race, one might be able to say that he has presidential experience. But he'd be the only one.

Is experience time served in public office? I suppose that could be a component of it. Is 10 years twice the experience of 5?

Does the nature of the public time served play a part? Certainly. I'd say that a person who had been mayor of a small town probably has less experience than a former governor of California, for example.

So there's a level of importance and relevancy that should be factored in. A mayor of New York City might possibly have more relevant experience than, say, a city council member of a small unincorporated town.

Does accomplishment have anything to do with it? Certainly, merely getting elected serves as some sort of accomplishment, but there's a difference between campaigning and governing, isn't there? For example, George W. Bush is clearly a very good campaigner. His ability to "stay on point" is a skill that yielded superior returns, in contrast with his last two opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry. Their "nuanced" approaches to tackling the issues of the day, while perhaps more enlightened, certainly diluted their effectiveness in getting their points across with an ever-increasingly skeptical American voting public.

But Bush's success as a campaigner hasn't assisted him in his true mission, that of governing the American federal government. One might say that the very skills and competencies that makes one a good campaigner, almost by definition, makes one a horrible governor.

While on the subject of President Bush, I'd like to interject a thought about his experience prior to winning the presidency. He had a failed run at the US House of Representatives in 1978, prior to winning the race for Governor of Texas in 1994 and then getting elected for a second term. Texas has a "weak governor" in that he or she has no real power. Many of Bush's claimed successes were merely his endorsements of programs that passed through the Texas legislature. In order to get pet projects passed into law, Bush certainly had to persuade the Texas legislature to assist; on this note, he did gain some political experience. Overall, though, I'd say he had comparatively little experience in government prior to winning in 2000.

So the claim that anybody who doesn't have experience only has to look at our current president to conclude that perhaps having experience doesn't matter a whole lot. In fact, it may be a disadvantage.

Let's look at that for a moment by contrasting John McCain with Barack Obama. McCain has been a US senator for over 20 years, and before that, he was a representative in the US House for 4 years. So he a has a combined 25 years serving in a national office.

Barack Obama has been serving in high-level state and national office for over 10 years, serving first as a state senator in Illinois for several terms, then being elected US senator of Illinois in 2004.

Clearly, Obama has served less time than McCain. But does one have more relevant experience than the other? McCain has a pretty decent record as a US senator. He has introduced many bills and has his name attached to perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of legislation of the past 20 years, McCain-Feingold.

In contrast, Obama has introduced one bill that passed into law, Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act (as far as I know).

The $64,000 question is: Is it enough? Are Americans willing to trade experience for ideas? I'm not sure. Time and election results will tell. It looks like Democratic voters might be willing. But the general election is a whole new ballgame.

You can bet that Obama's "lack of experience" will be contrasted with McCain, Giuliani, or Romney's, if Obama wins the nomination of his party. I'd venture to guess that Clinton's experience can be called into question, too, since she's only served one more term than Obama and before that was First Lady (which has no official responsibility to the US government).

I am unaware of any success Hillary Clinton has as First Lady. She didn't sponsor any bills, didn't effect any change, didn't get health care reform passed like the Clintons promised. I'm not sure what she's done as a senator. Clearly, though, New Yorkers liked her enough to reelect her for a second term.

So, in conclusion, does experience matter? I doubt it as far as competency as a leader goes. But it will play a part in the general election, that you can be sure of!