Who Needs Experience?

By Michael Kinsley
Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hillary Clinton declared the other day -- apropos of whom, she didn't say, or need to -- "We can't afford on-the-job training for our next president." Barack Obama immediately retorted, "My understanding is that she wasn't Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. I don't know exactly what experience she's claiming." As wit, that round goes to Obama. Clinton was elected to the Senate in 2000, her first experience of public office. Obama was an Illinois state senator for seven years before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. In terms of experience in elective office, this seems to be a wash.

But since she brought it up, how important is experience in a candidate for president? If experience were a matter of offices held, however briefly, the best candidate running would be Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and former so many different things that you can hardly believe this is the same person popping up again. But that is ticket-punching, not experience.

With her "on-the-job training" jab, Clinton was clearly referring to work experience. But there is also life experience. Being first lady is sort of half job and half life but good experience in either case.

She has to be careful about making a lot of this. Many people resent her using her position as first lady to take what they see as a shortcut to elective office. More profoundly, some people see her as having used her marriage as a shortcut to feminism. And the specter of dynasty hangs unattractively over her presidential ambitions. In an odd way, the deep unpopularity of George W. Bush has hurt Hillary Clinton, as people think: "Enough with relatives already."

But being the president's spouse has to be very helpful for a future president. It's like an eight-year "Take Your Daughter to Work Day." Laura Bush, as far as we know, has made no important policy decisions during her husband's presidency, but she has witnessed many and must have a better understanding of how the presidency works than all but half a dozen people in the world. One of those half a dozen is Hillary Clinton, who saw it all -- well, she apparently missed one key moment -- and shared in all the big decisions. Every first lady is promoted as her husband's key adviser, closest confidant, blah, blah, blah, but in the case of the Clintons, it seems to be true. Pillow talk is good experience.

Obama also has valuable experience apart from elective office, and he also has to be careful about how he uses it. This is his experience as a black man in America and as what you might call a "world man" -- Kenyan father, American mother, four formative years living in Indonesia, more years in the ethnic stew of Hawaii, middle name of Hussein, and so on -- in an increasingly globalized world. Our current president had barely been outside the country when he was elected. His efforts to make up for this through repeated proclamations of pal-ship with every foreign leader who parades through Washington have been an embarrassment. Obama's upbringing would serve us well if he were president, both in the understanding he would bring to issues of America's role in the world (the term "foreign policy" sounds increasingly anachronistic) and in terms of how the world views America. Clinton mocks Obama's claims that four years growing up in Indonesia constitute useful world-affairs experience. But they do.

On the Republican side, the candidate of life experience is John McCain. His 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, and his heroic behavior then, don't necessarily make him an expert on world affairs, as he sometimes seems to imply. But they do give him a head start in moral authority, which the next president will need.

As for experience of the more conventional sort, almost every presidential campaign features two basic arguments. Senators, or former senators, accuse governors or former governors of not having enough foreign policy experience. And governors or former governors (or this year, possibly, a former mayor) accuse senators or former senators of never having run anything larger than a Senate office.

The governors have the better case. Running even a small state government resembles being president more than holding hearings and issuing statements or even passing the occasional resolution. That's about all a senator can do ever since Congress more or less ceded dictatorial power in foreign policy to the president.

My candidate, at least at the moment, is Obama. When I hear him discussing issues, I hear intelligence and reflection and almost a joy in thinking it through. (Okay, not all issues. He obviously gets no joy over driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.) That willingness, even eagerness, to figure things out seems to me more valuable than any amount of experience in allowing issues to wash over you as they do our incumbent president.

Warren Buffett likes to say, when people tell him that they've learned from experience, that the trick is to learn from other people's experience. George W. Bush will leave behind a rich compost heap of experience for his successor to sort through and learn from.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for Time magazine and an occasional contributor to The Post.

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