Monday, September 01, 2008

A Brief Note on "Experience" and the Presidency

"Experience" is the word of this election, contrary to all of the hoopla surrounding "change." Senator McCain has made much of Senator Obama's lack of "experience" to discredit his opponent's pretensions to knowing what he is talking about on a whole host of issues, but primarily those dealing with foreign policy. Senator Obama has now countered that Senator McCain's Vice-Presidential nominee selection, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, is an even greater novice, having only been in her current job for a year and a half. So what is one to make of all this talk of "experience?" Is it merely a canard? Or is there something to it? And if so, what?

The history of the Presidency is full of the experienced and the inexperienced, but it really depends on what sort of experience one values when selecting a President. For instance, George Washington had virtually no governing experience whatsoever when he became President. He had served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and, of course, had been Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. But, he had never been an executive officer in a constitutionally limited republican government, which is far far different from being the commander of an army. James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover were men brimming with experience that most thought would be invaluable to their respective Presidencies. Abraham Lincoln had no executive experience at all and his only national experience in government was one rather unsuccessful term as a representative from Illinois.

What sort of experience do we want in a President? The job is rather straightforward: 1) Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, 2) Sign or veto legislation from congress, 3) Appoint officers to various posts in the executive branch and the federal judiciary, and 4) Protect and defend the constitution. Very few people will ever have experience in more than one or two of these however. Aside from General Washington for instance, no one has ever had experience as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces before being President. State governors are the only people with some sort of comparable experience in items 2 and 3. And I would contend that there are very few politicians around who can credibly or legitimately claim they have any notion of how item 4 works. To put it simply, the job is a unique one that even a lifetime of experience will never adequately prepare one for. Ironically, the only thing that prepares someone to be President is being President, which is why people running for reelection are seldom besmirched as being inexperienced.

Experience is valuable mostly to voters because it provides something by which to judge how someone behaves and acts in office, under pressure, etc. Someone with little or no experience in office of some kind has to rely more on rhetoric and assurances simply because there is little or no publicly available evidence upon which they can base their claims. Incumbents are dominant not simply because of money, though that can and does help, but because they are experienced. As long as that experience does not upset a majority of their constituents, or rather a majority that cares and votes, they are highly unlikely to be turned out of office involuntarily. But while experience matters to voters when trying to get an idea of how a person will behave in office and perform as President, it is a surprisingly unreliable indicator of future job performance.

Richard Nixon did not have a reputation for dishonesty until becoming President (one of the many reasons his actions in office destroyed him so utterly in his second term). Military chiefs have been Presidents fairly often in the United States, but their various performances are hardly indicative of any patterns: George Washington served two terms and performed the job as only the republic's one indispensable man could, Andrew Jackson served two tumultuous but ultimately quite successful terms, William Henry Harrison died within a month of taking the job, Zachary Taylor had a difficult year and three+ months before dieing, Ulysses S. Grant's Presidency was an inglorious end note to a brilliantly successful performance in the Civil War, and General Eisenhower's presidency was an eight year affront to sound governance. There have been men in the job with far more experience than any of the nabobs currently running, like John Adams, John Quincy Adams, William Howard Taft, etc. who have not had particularly successful times in office.

Senate experience is no more indicative of success or failure than being a governor of a state or a member of congress or even a Vice-President. Success as a President depends upon the person filling the job and the events he will face while in office. The judgement of the potential President is really what prior experience is meant to highlight in concrete ways. How does the candidate make decisions? What ideals and principles guide them to the decisions they eventually make? All the experience in the world means nothing if that experience is characterized by poor, irrational, or otherwise inept judgment.

Senator McCain should beware that fact whenever he points to his reservoir of "experience." Any thoughtful examination of his years in the Senate reveals a non-stop horror story of government expansion, assaults on individual liberty in a whole host of areas, and an "I'm holier than thou" hypocrisy unworthy of anyone trying to become President, even in these degraded times of ours.

Senator Obama should not be quick to dismiss experience when he has nothing to offer in assurance that he's thought through any of things he's saying or proposing. If he has thought them through, then it's an unfortunate sign of the caliber of his alleged "intellect."

The real experiences the press should focus on are the experiences of the American people over the past seventy-five years (at least), and the failures, big and small, of their perverse "experiment" in altruist-based and collectivist-laden government. The Presidential candidate who does not take that experience seriously and attempt to learn from it is doomed before he even gets elected no matter how much or how little "experience" he's had in making things worse.

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