Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Dubious Value of Experience

In the upcoming Presidential election we are going to hear a lot about the value of experience, particularly on the Democratic side, where the three leading contenders between them have averaged less than one term in the Senate, and little else.

The upside from this is you get some terrific zingers. My favorite two, so far, are Hillary's shot at Obama that ‘‘Voters will have to judge if living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face.’’

And Obama's retort that "My understanding is she wasn't treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. I don't know exactly what experience she's claiming."

Mudslinging may be bad for the Republic and all that, but it can be fun!

But does anybody stop and wonder: does experience really matter? Surveys of historians routinely place three Presidents - Lincoln, Washington, and FDR - as the three greatest Presidents in U.S. history. How much experience did these guys have?
  • Lincoln, the consistent champ, has a resume that is similar to Obama's, only not as impressive. Like Obama, Abe spent a fair amount of time in the Illinois State Legislature, while pursuing a law career. But Obama has a much more impressive education and spent 3 whole years in the Senate. Poor Abe's national electoral experience consisted entirely of one 2-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was not reelected.

  • FDR had more experience than most, but not as much as you'd think. He was a State Senator, Under-Secretary of the Navy, and VP candidate as a young man - but like Hillary and Dubya, he got these jobs more because of his last name than any personal accomplishments. He then withdrew from politics for most of the 20's while recovering from polio. In 1928 he ran for governor of NY, and 4 years later he was President.
Who had more experience than all these guys combined? How about James Buchanan? Buchanan served 5 terms in the House, and was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He then served as Minister to Russia. He returned to the States and was elected 3 times to the Senate, where he was Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. He was nominated (but declined) to serve on the Supreme Court. Instead, he became Polk's Secretary of State. Finally, he was the Minister to the Court of St. James (Ambassador to Britain). That, my friends, is a resume!
Naturally, he was a complete failure as a President, and consistently ranks as one of the worst Presidents in U.S. history.

So, vote for who you want. But be suspicious of the value of experience.

Update (12/7/07): A NY Times/CBS News poll shows that primary voters slightly favor the "Right Experience" over "Fresh Ideas" (48% to 39%). But drill down a bit, and you find that Republican voters massively favor experience (61% - 27%) over ideas, whereas Democrats actually favor "fresh ideas" (45% to 42%). It's my opinion, which I'll explore in a future post, that these aren't actual opinions - they are opinions that have been formed to meet existing conditions.


Penny said...

Thank you for this interesting post. I didn't realize Lincoln had so little public service experience. I suspect that he had a level of decency and a strength of character that we won't find in any of the candidates in the current race. But I'd like to be pleasantly surprised.

Keep up the great blogging!

Tim said...

I'm shocked you didn't add any commentary about the lustrous experience being touted by your (current) boy, Rudy G. Isn't he America's Mayor? Or is it America's Mayor in Drag?

Good to see you're spending your time productively....TDowns

Sara! said...

This is fascinating, Chris!

Well now you've done it. I ignored your advice to ignore you. And now you've earned yourself a reader.

So there!