Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Picking a President: The Argument Against Experience

My mother waffled back and forth between Clinton and Obama. She ultimately went for Clinton because, she said:

  • She has more experience
  • She doesn't have a penis
The second one isn't a direct quote, but it is the gist of her argument. I'll save my comments on the all-too-prevalent lack o'penis argument for another post. For this post, lets just focus on the experience argument.

The two burning questions are:
  • What constitutes a wide breadth of experience
  • And does size matter (sorry, couldn't help myself)
Clinton's Experience Claims

In the democratic primary, Clinton sold herself as being more experienced and many people (including most of the pundits) seem to have bought it. A few, like Alissa Warters and Scott Kaufman on History News Network, did question the validity of Clinton's claims. But even when democrats were up in arms about Hillary's suggestion that she and McCain had experience and Obama had only a speech, people rarely challenged her.

These days, Clinton is still using her ready on day one argument to try and sway superdelegates. But they would be crazy to pick her based on experience. Is she really going to try and run against McCain based on experience? He's got all the traditional pre-presidential creds.
  • War hero - check
  • Bazillion years senate experience - check
  • Life as a white male people want to have a beer with - check
Judging by what looks to be the outcome of the democratic primary, it appears Clinton's experience argument swayed some older voters like my mom, but didn't do much for the rest of us.

Now comes the real test. Did the experience argument not sway because people don't think experience matters or because of the gaping holes in Clinton's experience claims?

So far, Obama has chosen to counter the experience argument by pointing out that people with a lifetime of experience (like Dick Cheney) are the ones who got us into this mess in the first place. Obama claims it is not Washington experience, but life experience that matters. Even more important, he says, is having good judgment.

Experience, Not so Great After All

Obama's claims have been effective, but they don't explicitly challenge the whole idea of experience being mostly positive and sometimes neutral. I'd like to make a clear argument for the opposite. Often experience is a negative.

It's not a given that people learn from their mistakes. Experience does not always mean wisdom. Sometimes, experience so corrupts a person that any value gained from having seen the mechanisms by which things work is far outweighed by the myopia and emotional baggage that comes with that experience.

Hillary Clinton is a perfect example of someone experience has not been kind to. Her lifetime of experience told her that a president needed to be seen as tough, as able to be Commander in Chief. She spent her political career trying to look tough and ended up running for president at a moment when we were all tired of cowboys (or cowgirls) who want to "obliterate" Iran.

McCain has been corrupted by his experience as well. His experience showed him that, unless he sucked up to Bush and to the right wing of his party, he would lose his bid for the presidency in another barrage of nasty attacks and innuendo like the Rove assault in South Carolina in 2000.

Bill Clinton has been a walking argument against experience. The saxophone playing, smooth as silk, empathizer-in-chief turned into a sad, petty, race-baiting, fact-fudging shell of his former self. (O.k., we all knew about the fact-fudging, but he was so much smoother about it before.)

Getting through life without becoming jaded and compromised by your experience is a difficult thing to do. That is especially true for people in power. Many people see Clinton (and increasingly McCain) as being too compromised. Obama, on the other hand, is right on the precipice. He has enough experience to run an incredible campaign organization, but not so much experience that he seems completely tainted - yet.

Of course, nobody knows how long Obama will be able to keep that mojo going. He too will likely be corrupted by experience some day. Lets hope it takes a few more years.

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