Why Experience Isn’t Everything

“Suppose you had to choose between two Presidential candidates, one of whom had spent 20 years in Congress plus had considerable other relevant experience and the other of whom had about half a dozen years in the Illinois state legislature and 2 years in Congress. Which one do you think would make a better President? If you chose #1, congratulations, you picked James Buchanan over Abraham Lincoln.”

— “How Good Are Experienced Presidents?

Likewise, of course, if Hillary Clinton really believed her “experience counts” mantra, she needs to explain why she voted for her husband over George HW Bush back in ’92. Bush, after all, had a huge amount of experience on the national political level (including, of course, four years as president), while Bill Clinton had none, save for losing a House election in 1974. All his experience was on the state level, as was Obama’s up until his election in the Senate. Basically if Clinton wants to suggest that Obama’s not ready for the 3am phone call, she should explain why she felt her husband was, back in ’92. Has anyone asked her about this? I’m not aware of anyone having done so. I would be interested in the answer she gives.

46 Comments on “Why Experience Isn’t Everything”

  1. Meme du jour on experience:

    “Saying that Hillary has Executive Branch experience is like saying Yoko Ono was a Beatle.” Jsn at Daily Kos.

  2. LOL!!! Yeah, I don’t buy the experience counts thing either way. Aside from the puppet monkey, this current administration has lots of experience. And look how bad they fucked it up.

    Interesting that both Jr. Shrub and Bill Clinton both had only state level experience and two quite different outcomes from that, eh?

  3. Dammit, Scalzi, what kind of American are you, anyway??

    All this “making actual sense” stuff you come up with. It’s just not right. Can’t you live in utter denial like everyone else?

  4. That would be a clever little question, indeed; however, I do still think it’s a moot point.

    Though if she had voted against against her gusband on the “experience matters” principle, it would have been fucking hillarious.

  5. I don’t think anyone is saying “experience is everything”. Just that it’s a valid consideration.

    Also, Bill Clinton did have executive experience in ’92–he had experience running a government, which counts for something.

    But there’s a subtle-but-key subext in the “3 AM” ad. It isn’t just “who has the experience to answer the phone”–it’s also, “who will handle that call in a better way”. Hillary is implicitly saying “I will be more of a hawk when I answer the phone”i.e. If the proper thing to say into the phone at 3 AM is “let’s bomb the bastards”, Hillary is more likely to say that than Obama. She can’t actually come out and say that in a Democratic primary, but she’s willing to let that sit in the minds of the undecideds.

  6. If only we would just stop electing goddamn lawyers. How about a scientist or a real mafioso. Damn lawyers.

  7. You read electoral-vote?! I go there every day. Such an awesome site. He has really good and insightful things to say, and has a really good map for who is winning what. Spiffy! (OK I’m done gushing now. Sorry)

  8. I don’t generally buy the experience counts thing either, however I also don’t buy into the whole “hope is here, and I’ll bring change, yup, I’ll do it, but I’m not telling you how yet, you’ll just have to wait and see” approach. Telling me you’re going to change things and giving me very little to go on to trust you, like any other politician, to do just that and change things for the better is worthless. I need the straight facts and not a sugarcoated feel-good version. I think it’s nice and all that Obama is a wonderful, inspirational speaker, but that’s not enough for me to get his vote. He has plenty of explaining to do on his end for his policies.
    As for Clinton…I don’t think she has much experience, to be honest, though I agree there is a little to be answered for in regards to voting for her husband. The obvious answer is because he’s her husband and you just do those sorts of things, but I think a more appropriate answer would do good. Then again, considering what we had with Clinton and what we have no with Bush, and what we’ll likely still have when McCain, Obama, or Clinton 2 takes over, has me thinking it wasn’t such a bad choice.
    But I’m just a naive college student who happens to be far more conservative than 90% of the college population who probably have no idea what any of the candidates stand for anyway…

  9. She’s playing to her strengths. She knows she doesn’t have Obama’s charisma or his ability to sound genuine. She always sounds rehearsed. The best she’s got is some one-liners (and maybe a husband who’s been there, done that).

  10. SMD, how much more detail do you want from Obama? You can find out where he stand on various issues on his website: http://www.barackobama.com/issues

    Do you feel that other candidates in the race have provided more specific and substantive policy information than Obama has? If so, who and in what way?

  11. I’m not an American, but I do think it’s great that of the 3 candidates left, every single one of them would be orders of magnitude better than the current president.

  12. For those who don’t want to buy into the Obama hype.

    He didn’t either. But he went and did the research—all laid out here. And now he supports Obama.

    I forget if it was you, o Scalzi of Great Wisdom, who had that link ages ago.

    Anyways, anyone who says all candidates are the same are, in my experience, not looking all that closely. I remember a time when someone told me that it didn’t matter he was voting for Bush Jr. again, because obviously all candidates would be the same, so he might as well vote party line.

    At the time I had no idea how dumb that was.

  13. Nicely put. A yes, if experience is primary then the Democrats MUST nominate Jimmy Carter, and the Republicans George H. W. Bush, because those are the only two living Americans with 4 years on the job experience, and yet still constitutionally eligible to serve another term!

  14. Apologies ahead of time, John, if this question isn’t considered relevant to this thread, but here goes:

    I maintain that a Clinton/Obama ticket is going to be the best way to solve the current infighting in the D party; in fact, I think that in spite of the thrashing going on between the two camps, it’s inevitable, because of how close they are in delegate counts, etc.. However, I only used their names in that sequence because that’s the alphabetical order. What do you think would be acceptable shorthand if you support both of them being on the ticket, regardless of who has the top spot? Something like “C/O/O/C”?

  15. Obama today made it pretty clear he’s not interested in the VP slot, and I can’t imagine a universe in which Hillary accepts the VP slot from Obama, so I suspect the Clinton/Obama (or vice versa) ticket is a pipe dream.

  16. I keep hearing/seeing the Clinton/Obama ticket being thrown around as the answer (pick whatever order you prefer). I just don’t see what benefit either would give to the other as far as results in November. Especially if you give Obama the top slot. Obama might be able to help soften the blow for his supporters if Clinton takes the lead, but I don’t see that it helps her much at all beyond that.

  17. With less than six months to go, I think you’ll see some thawing on both sides.

    Nonetheless, I’d still like to know what a good short-form would be for such a pairing. Any ideas?

  18. I disagree @18.

    As discussed many places on the internets already today, there is something ESPECIALLY noxious about the candidate in second place (in states won, in popular vote count, in pledged delegates) — that would be Clinton btw — floating the meme that the LEADER in the race — that’s Obama on all counts — should accept the bottom spot on the ticket. It’s rather sickening to me, really.

  19. Likewise, of course, if Hillary Clinton really believed her “experience counts” mantra, she needs to explain why she voted for her husband over George HW Bush back in ‘92.

    You assume that she did… ;)

  20. The quote from electoral-vote.com is nonsense, because it leaves out the very relevant information that Buchanan never ran against Lincoln. Buchanan was a one-term president (1856-60), during which time he clearly demonstrated his total incompetence for the office and never tried for a second term. The Democrat Party split in 1860; the Southern half ran John C. Breckenridge and the Northern half backed Lincoln’s old sparring-partner Stephen Douglas. The comparison would be much more effective if it compared two candidates who actually had run against each other — say, McKinley vs William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

    The only reason “experience” is an issue this election cycle is because the Queen Bitch chose to make it an issue, in her desperate quest to find some effective way to criticize Mister Teflon Obama. If she had any brains she’d have just started calling him “my conservative opponent” — most D voters consider “conservative” a worse epithet than “terrorist,” and react to it about the same way that dogs react to a dose of skunk spray.

  21. The only reason “experience” is an issue this election cycle is because the Queen Bitch chose to make it an issue, in her desperate quest to find some effective way to criticize Mister Teflon Obama.

    Sorry, but the sexism in that statement annoys me. You’d never call a male candidate anything remotely similar.

  22. Wolfwalker:

    “The quote from electoral-vote.com is nonsense, because it leaves out the very relevant information that Buchanan never ran against Lincoln.”

    It’s not implied that Buchanan did run against Lincoln; what is being compared is relative experience prior to White House occupancy, and whether it’s more desirable to have more experience in politics than less, as regards the quality of one’s presidential tenure.

    You’re complaining because the comparison doesn’t do what you want it to do, basically.

    Also, agreed with Sara Genge re: the sexism.

  23. Andrew S @ 5

    If the proper thing to say into the phone at 3 AM is “let’s bomb the bastards”, Hillary is more likely to say that than Obama.

    Why do you say that? I certainly don’t believe that despite what he says. Now I would believe that of Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, but not Obama, Clinton or McCain.

    The question is who has the judgement to bomb the bastards when the bastards need bombin’ and stay the bombs when necessary.

    Now Obama has said he wants to go bomb Pakistan whether or not the Pakistani’s like it.

    Do those bastards need bombin’?

    SMD @ 11

    I don’t generally buy the experience counts thing either, however I also don’t buy into the whole “hope is here, and I’ll bring change, yup, I’ll do it, but I’m not telling you how yet, you’ll just have to wait and see” approach.

    Clearly he is trying to make it through the nomination without committing himself too much. This is because to make it through the gauntlet of the Democratic nomination, he has to get the votes of the Left. But then he will have to take a Right turn in the General and appeal to the Center.

    And one has to do this without leaving a trail that lends itself to a flip flopper attack ad. So Obama is being as vague as he can and still win.

    We won’t know his real positions until the General.

    If then….

  24. I think Clinton’s experience hurts her. This excerpt is from her campaign website:
    She has introduced legislation to tie Congressional salary increases to an increase in the minimum wage, because she believes if America’s working people don’t deserve a raise, neither does Congress. She has supported a variety of middle-class tax cuts, including marriage penalty relief, property tax relief, and reduction in the Alternative Minimum Tax, and supports fiscally responsible pay-as-you-go budget rules. She helped pass legislation that encouraged investment to create jobs in struggling communities through the Renewal Communities program. She has championed legislation to bring broadband Internet access, which is so important in today’s information economy, to rural America.

    While those are great things to support, notice what she actually got PASSED. I want a candidate that will make change, not just champion it. Someone both parties would support and work with to stop this recession. I think Clinton’s experience shows she doesn’t go the extra step to get important legislation passed.

    Maybe Obama didn’t get anything passed either. But I know what to expect from Clinton; I’d rather take a chance on a new guy.

  25. Clinton’s “experience” meme is just silly. Where does this magical foreign policy experience come from? A brighter-than-most reporter asked Wolfson ( I think it was Wolfson ) that on a conference call and you know what the answer was?




    Than Wolfson said her foreign policy experience was giving a speech in China. A frickin’ speech. Meanwhile Monster Inc is saying Obama’s only foreign policy experience is limited to an anti war speech Obama gave in 2002. Hypocricy much?

    In other news it has just been anounced that Eli Manning is stepping down as quarterback of the NY Giants and his wife/fiance is talking over as starting QB. That should work out well.

  26. Sara:

    You’d never call a male candidate anything remotely similar.

    Don’t bet on it.

    On second thought, do bet on it. I can always use the money.

    I routinely call her husband a slug (sometimes with sundry even-less-appetizing adjectives attached), and the party to which they both belong the Vermin Party. A certain Pennsylvania congressman is Traitor Jack to me; a certain Massachusetts Senator is Drunken Ted; long ago I was heard more than once to call GHW Bush and his chosen veep “the Dumbnamic Duo,” and I thought (and said) the veep in question didn’t have the brains God gave a rock. The only reason I don’t use equally strong language in describing male politicians is because there isn’t any equally strong language — all the terms I can think of for males are either milder in their general meanings, or nastier. But you can rest assured that when I call HRC the Queen Bitch, there’s neither more nor less intensity and dislike behind it than when I call her husband the Slug.


    “It’s not implied that Buchanan did run against Lincoln;”

    On the contrary, I think that’s exactly what’s implied by offering a choice between Buchanan and Lincoln in the context of the experience issue and the current Dem race. I’ll agree it isn’t what the original author meant to imply, but when you extracted only that quote, and required people to click through to get the additional information, that’s exactly the impression that developed. When I clicked the link I fully expected to find some annoyingly stupid parade of drivel that did comparison after comparison based on “experience” without ever mentioning that the candidates being compared never ran against each other and were elected in wildly varying political contexts.

    You (and the original authors) would have done better to pick two candidates who actually did run against each other and still illustrate the same point. Ford and Carter, Humphrey and Nixon, McKinley and Bryan, FDR and Hoover. Maybe the best example would be Wilson vs. Taft and Teddy Roosevelt in 1912: Wilson had a grand total of two years experience in elected office, while both his opponents had held numerous elected positions including the Oval Office itself, and both had done adequate jobs there.

  27. 1) Neither of these candidates is ready to do what is best for America: cut back federal government, end wars, eliminate bribes to foreign countries, and work very, very hard to restore financial sanity to the nation. McCain won’t either.

    2) We need a sophisticated scholar-king President who is willing to accept the political backlash from massive cuts in federal spending to preserve the long-term health of the nation. None of the current crop comes remotely close to this description.

    3) Obama cannot permit Hillary to be the VP candidate because his life expectancy will immediately drop.

    4) Experience and treachery will beat youth and energy every single time.

    5) There will be some very, very hard feelings about things by the end of November.

  28. Adam: All I hear from him is talk. Talk, talk, talk. Talk is cheap. Granted, I’m not watching everything about the candidates, but I do intend to watch the debates once the Dem position is taken (which will likely be Obama).
    Regardless, all he ever says is “I’m going to change things”. I’ve heard politicians say that before, and it’s never happened, or if it has it hasn’t been a good change.
    And I don’t support his take on immigration because anyone who wants to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants has no clue what it’s like living in a state filled to the brim with illegal immigrants, and legal ones who deserve far more respect than his policy of “well give the ones who broke the law a handslap” will give them. That whole bit a lot of babble too. Politicians have repeated that whole “you can trust me, I’ll make immigration stop” thing over and over, and yet we find ourselves repeatedly in the same position–granting “amnesty” to millions of people that don’t belong here and promising, once again, that the government will solve the problem, which it never has.
    I have a severe lack of faith in our government, and being only 24 that is a bad thing. I should have faith, but still question, but I have no faith at all. I see promises being made, but nothing to convince me that those promises will be kept.
    As for the other candidates, I don’t really support any of them. I’m at a loss this election because I have no idea who to vote for. McCain has some good ideas that I agree with, and then he pushes a lot of my buttons and makes me really dislike him. Obama does the same and so does Clinton. I liked Edwards, but I didn’t get a chance to really learn about his policies because he dropped out of the race (I only start paying attention around this time of year as far as policies go). I liked some of what Ron Paul said, and then he too pushed my buttons by making some crazy statements and proposing completely nutter ideas. Almost all the Republicans are too religious for me, and I am about sick of religious politics. Most of the Democrats are too liberal for me, and are wanting to do things this country really needs to think twice about. We’re at war right now. We have a duty to finish that, bring our soldiers home and leave behind a country that can fend for itself. Can any of the candidates do that? Do you agree with unconditional withdrawal or unconditional phased withdrawal? What if doing that means we leave Iraq completely open to the people trying to tear it down now, and after all the lives lost, the money spent, the soldiers kills, murdered, and sacrificed, Iraq just goes back to the way it was, or worse? What will we tell the families and children of the people who have already died there? “Well, sorry, I guess they died for nothing at all…oops”?
    I’m basically at a loss when it comes to the politics of this country. I don’t know who to vote for, who will do what needs to be done to put us back on top again, etc.

    Okay, enough rambling. Basically, I don’t know who I’m voting for cause they all annoy me.

  29. Frank @31: Laura @29: I want a candidate that will make change, not just champion it.

    Are you sure this is what you want?

    Because if it is, clearly you want McCain.

    Are you sure about that, considering McCain’s improper relationship (i.e. the gifts) with a lobbyist and the nearly overwhelming number working on his campaign?

    He has championed reform in the past, while at the same time doing things that I think are questionable.

    If I had to bet on it, I’d still probably guess that Obama will change more than McCain would, but that’s just my personal feeling on the subject.

  30. “Logical” games like this bug me because they obscure the discussion. Just because Lincoln was better than Buchanan, doesn’t mean that all people with little experience will be better than those with experience.

  31. Rip, if you look at the site he gives you’ll notice that when you lay it all out it only turns out that the field is somewhat even. There are some presidents with lots of experience who sucked, and some with little experience who sucked, and some with lots of experience that were good and others with little experience that were good. The way I see it, it all just evens out and says that experience really doesn’t necessarily matter, cause it could go either way.

  32. SMD,

    It doesn’t matter what you hear from Obama. All you hear from any candidate is stump speeches, and if you expect substantive policy analysis in a stump speech, well, sorry.

    One good place to check out what Obama thinks is his website, linked above. It’s quite comprehensive and detailed. Or, if you want analyses of his legislative record, you could do worse than this one from Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings: http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2006/10/barack_obama.html.
    Nub ‘graph: “I do follow legislation, at least on some issues, and I have been surprised by how often Senator Obama turns up, sponsoring or co-sponsoring really good legislation on some topic that isn’t wildly sexy, but does matter. His bills tend to have the following features: they are good and thoughtful bills that try to solve real problems; they are in general not terribly flashy; and they tend to focus on achieving solutions acceptable to all concerned, not by compromising on principle, but by genuinely trying to craft a solution that everyone can get behind.”

    For more, here’s a comparison of bills sponsored by Obama and Clinton: http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2008/02/solutions-adden.html
    And here’s a comparison of bills co-sponsored by them:

    There’s plenty more out there. Those are just some posts from one of the more informative and unbiased political sites I like.

    On a general note, it’s hard to say that Obama (or Clinton, for that matter) lacks substance unless you a) don’t look for the substance, or b) ignore it when you see it. I understand a completely. It’s a matter of rational ignorance–it’s not worth most people’s time to get informed on issues when their votes matter so little. But a person who doesn’t know what a candidate stands for shouldn’t blame the candidate when it’s only his or her ignorance that’s to blame.

    So that’s my suggestion. Watching the debates might help, but I’ve never learned anything from a debate. Listening to stump speeches and rallies certainly won’t teach you anything. Sometimes, all that’s left is, y’know, research.

  33. Spherical Time @37

    If I had to bet on it, I’d still probably guess that Obama will change more than McCain would, but that’s just my personal feeling on the subject.

    Which is fine, just so you know that there is no evidence to justify your feeling while there is years of evidence that McCain can and does work across the isle in a successful manner.

    In fact this is true enough that it is this very fact that put his nomination in doubt.

    Of course, in an election year, there will be all kinds of Johnny-come-lately’s

    The Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) today participated in a rally to support the amendment being offered by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to the 2009 budget resolution that will impose a year-long moratorium on congressional earmarks. The co-sponsors include three Senate Democrats, Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), along with five other Senate Republicans.

    Sometimes, an election year is a good time in which to get things done

  34. Michael,
    I have done research (as I said, this is the time I start really paying attention). Obama lost my vote with his immigration policies, Hilary never really had my vote, and McCain lost it because he’s Bush-lite. This isn’t a matter of picking the worst of two or three evils for many anymore. I did that last time with the Kerry/Bush deal, hoping that picking someone that didn’t really appeal to me would at least give the option of changing what Bush had gone off and screwed up. But if this is going to be a repetitive theme for politics, I really don’t see a point anymore. I might throw my vote for an independent, or not at all. I don’t like a lot of Obama’s policies, but others I do like. The same for McCain. The sad thing is that McCain ticks me off where Obama has it right and Obama ticks me off where McCain has it right.
    The short run of this is I don’t have a candidate because both are going to end up doing or pushing for things that are just going to make this country worse. Right now it’s just a vote for the lesser of two evils…
    (I went to a site that showed their positions and their voting records on the various subjects. Don’t remember what it was, but it was pretty in-depth, so I got a good idea where they all stood).

  35. This is a “powerful” example because Buchanan was arguably the worst president in the history of the US, while Lincoln was among the best, but I have a feeling that one can find many examples of the opposite nature, when experience proved an asset.

    Or, rather, human history is rich enough to provide examples to support any point of view, but none of those can absolutely predict how it’s going to play out in the future.

    Me, if the only criterion was experience, I would always pick the one who has it over the one who doesn’t. But there are certainly many more criteria in addition to that…

  36. Well the easiest way for her to answer it is, if you have two choices from candidates from the same party, experience should be the tipping point. I know she threw McCain’s name in there, but I think that was her way of saying the Republicans chose an experienced guy and it will take that same experience to beat him. McCain may have his hard line stances on certain things, but he’s more middle ground than Obama is and that, coupled with his experience is going to make a hard candidate for Obama to take swing voters because he has neither significant experience or a middle ground voting record.

    I wouldn’t mind Hilary or McCain. I just can’t get into the whole Obama craze. His lack of experience definetly shouldn’t throw him out of the race, but it is an appropriate concern in an election where we should be overly careful (last 8 years /sigh) on the candidates.

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