An issue that has been raised repeatedly in the Democratic primary is that of “experience”.[digg-reddit-me] Hillary Clinton is claiming she is the most experienced candidate and has repeatedly criticized her opponents – specifically Barack Obama – for not having enough experience. This was my initial reaction after I first heard Obama was running earlier this year as well. But as the campaign wore on, Obama won me over. I think similar arguments could be made for Paul, Kucinich, or others as well. If you trust their judgment, then their experience is less important.
There are three main points that were made to change my mind.
- History has shown that experience does not lead to better job performance in presidential politics.
- Experience can be a proxy for good judgment, but it isn’t always.
- No one is prepared to be president, and anyone who claims to be prepared is lying.
1. History has shown that experience does not lead to better job performance in presidential politics.
I published this earlier, but have adapted it a bit for this post.
Richard Nixon was one of the most experienced people to assume the presidency. JFK had less experience than almost anyone. Yet he beat Richard Nixon in the middle of the Cold War while the president was responsible for overseeing a possible nuclear war. JFK’s inexperience led to the Bay of Pigs disaster, but he learned valuable lessons from this, accepted responsibility for the failure, and managed the Cuban missile crisis expertly. Richard Nixon was experienced, one of the most experienced men to have assumed the presidency having served eight years as vice president in addition to his significant legislative experience – he knew how to work the levers of power; but his personality led him to be secretive and paranoid, to try to bully and intimidate those who disagreed with him, etc. JFK was able to remedy his inexperience while Nixon was not able to remedy his character flaws.
If you want to look to a more recent example of the price of experience, just look at Donald Rumsfeld – who was one of the single most experienced bureaucrats in Washington – having worked in the military-industrial complex for the past three decades. He had already been Secretary of Defense during Ford’s tenure, and was chief of staff to the president before that. Despite – and in a way, because of – his experience, his time as Secretary of Defense was an absolute disaster for the military. We could talk about Cheney too if you wanted.
When you think about it, some of our greatest presidents have had little or no national experience before they became president during some of the toughest times in our history – Abraham Lincoln, who had no national or managerial experience, Harry Truman, who was isolated by FDR and did not even know that the atom bomb was in development, and Bill Clinton, whose previous experience had been governing one of the less important states in the union. Yet each of them rose to the challenges they faced, overcame their lack of experience, and mastered the job.
2. Experience can be a proxy for good judgment, but it isn’t always.
“They want to project Senator Clinton as the seasoned, experienced hand. I don’t fault them for that. That’s the strategy they’re pursuing, and my response is that what the American people need and what the Oval Office needs right now is good judgment. Experience can be a proxy for good judgment, but it isn’t always.”
[Obama] then repeated what he said during a debate in Chicago last week: “All the people who were on that stage in Chicago talking about their experience and criticizing me for the lack of it were the same people who went along and displayed incredibly poor judgment in going along with a war that I think has been a disaster.” [my emphasis]
3. No one is prepared to be president, and anyone who claims to be prepared is lying.
“Anybody who stands before you and says, ‘I’m ready to do the job on Day 1’ ought to be disqualified. This is unique, this job. [When] you can sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, you can be better prepared and I believe I am. But you can’t be totally prepared for this.” In an interview afterward, Dodd suggested the proper attitude for anyone who inherits the White House in 2009: “They ought to be nervous.”
footnote: The title should be read as an SAT analogy. “Experience is to Judgment as Clinton is to Obama.”