Monday, September 24, 2007

The Liberal Argument Against Hillary Clinton: Experience and Other Distractions

(Part four of a series. Links to earlier parts: Part One, Introduction; Part Two, Who Can Win?; Part Three, The Affirmative Action Arguments.)

One more bad argument to be dealt with, before I get to the arguments which I think are good and should influence our votes.

But here, the bad argument is not one for Clinton, but one against one of her chief opponents -- probably the person who is, at this point, her most important rival: Barack Obama.

And that's the issue of "experience".

The question of "experience" is, I think, a complete red herring. It's a non-issue -- or it should be: I grant that our fashion-slave heathers-style media may make it more of one than it should be. But let's face it: they will empower Republican narratives no matter who the candidate is. (Lord only knows what they'll do to Hillary if she wins! Except for talk about the Clintons' sex life: we know they'll do that because they already are.) Yet another reason not to make electability our criteria here.

But is it an issue as far as actually making a good president goes?


There isn't a shred of evidence that I can see that good presidents have more experience than bad ones. Now, the problem (as someone -- Kevin Drum, I think? -- has pointed out) with generalizations about presidencies (and even presidential races) is that it's hard to draw good conclusions because the sample size is so small. For Pete's sake, we've only had 42 presidents* in this country -- and the country is very different than it was in George Washington's day (or even Abe Lincoln's).

But even if you want to assume that the experience of past presidents, however long ago they were in office, is relevant here, the record speaks against the argument of experience.

Historians are remarkably consistent about who they think the best presidents (usually "greatest" were). For instance, for decades, whenever you poll them the number two and three slot are taken up by George Washington and FDR -- the order varies, but they're almost always two and three. And the number one slot is even more consistent than that.

Who do historians agree was the single best president of the United States, ever?

Abraham Lincoln.

The single man to come into the office with less experience than any of his predecessors.

(Lincoln's immediate predecessor, James Buchanan -- who, until Bush '43, was the usual favorite pick for the worst president of the U.S. ever -- had an enormous amount of experience.)

Lincoln had served precisely two years in the U.S. Congress, and another six in the Illinois Legislature. That's it.

Oh, yes -- it happens to be precisely the same experience that Barack Obama has had -- or will have had, as of January, 2009.

Now, I don't think that means that Obama will be another Lincoln: I just think it helps show that the "experience" question is silly.

Why is it silly? Because being the president of the U.S. isn't like any other job in the world. There is no -- can be no -- preparation for this. The closest, one might argue, is being governor of a U.S. State** -- an experience which none of the leading Democratic candidates has had (although Bush '43, of course, had it: see where that got us).

But further, it gets wrong what makes a good president***: and what is worse, it gets it wrong in a way that fits in with a pernicious conservative talking point.

The worst version of this argument is to compare Obama to Bush. I've heard people -- liberals! -- say this: oh, we tried an inexperienced president; it didn't work out.

First, one might note that Bush had been Governor for the same length of time that Hilary will have been Senator, if she's elected. He wasn't particularly inexperienced as presidents go.

Second, if what one really means is that Bush was an ignorant SOB, then you're right... but none of the Democrats will be that. That's a non-issue.

But of course the key problem here is that it gets wrong why Bush has been so catastrophic. Bush wasn't bad because he, personally, was inexperienced, or even dumb or incompetent (although those latter two elements no doubt helped him add additional dimensions to the disaster that has been his presidency). Bush wasn't bad because of his inexperience, he was bad because of his ideology: Bush is a conservative, and conservative governance is terrible.

I've heard it said that the problem with Bush's inexperience is that he therefore had to rely upon his advisors. But of course his chief advisor -- some say the shadow-president -- was Dick Cheney -- who had lots of experience, precisely the sort of experience that people who natter on about the importance of experience are talking about.

Or, put another way: if experience is a criteria, then Cheney passes with flying colors. If you think the problem with Bush is his inexperience, then you ought to love Cheney.

But, of course, most people don't. Because Cheney has been a particularly pernicious influence on an unprecedentedly bad administration. Because he is a particularly fervent neoconservative on foreign policy issues, and a standard movement conservative on everything else.

The "experience" issue -- like the "character" issue, like the "competence" claim -- are dodges that conservatives use to try to avoid the fact that their governing philosophy has been a complete disaster from beginning to end in every area. Bush is bad because he implemented a conservative politics with a particularly free hand -- not because he didn't know what he was doing.

John McCain has lots of "experience". He'd be a terrible president.

Obama has very little. Clinton, actually, has reasonably little; so does Edwards. But every single one of them would be far, far better than McCain.

Experience is just irrelevant.

Finally, of course, Obama isn't inexperienced compared to Clinton -- unless one accepts a silly hierarchical conception of levels of experience in government.

Obama, of course, was a state legislator for six years, and then was elected to the U.S. Senate; Hillary will have been a U.S. Senator for six years if elected. But I can't think of many reasons that one is better "experience" for being president than the other. (One might argue that experience with the U.S. Senate is important for passing legislation, but here again, experience isn't the relevant issue here: Kennedy wasn't all that much more experienced as a Senator that LBJ, but he didn't do as well in the Senate. It was mostly about personality, political skill... other things.)

But the fundamental point is that this is a distraction. We ought to vote for candidates based on what their ideology is: it's that which will shape their governance. Which will influence the decisions they make on issues we can, today, barely dream will matter to us as much as they will. Other things matter -- the kind of people they appoint and take advice from, for instance. But experience is just a big red herring.

Okay. Enough about Obama. In part five, I'll get back to Hillary -- and on to the real reasons to vote against her, the ones that I think should matter (unlike electability, gender or experience).

This series, past and projected.
1. Introduction
2. Who can win?
3. The affirmative action arguments
4. Experience and other distractions
5. Vote for the liberal!
6. Against empire: the Democrats, Iraq and military force
7. Against excessive executive power
8. Articulating a liberal philosophy

* Yes, I know that W is the 43rd President. They count Grover Cleveland twice. I think it's silly. But even if you want to say he had two presidencies, it's hard to say that he was two presidents.

** Actually the closest would probably being the executive leader of another country. But so far a I know, no candidate for U.S president has ever had that qualification -- indeed, it would almost certainly rule anyone out as a candidate. (Sorry, Tony.)

*** Good as opposed to great, here. Good presidents either have mixed-but-generally-positive records (e.g. Wilson), or presided over comparatively uneventful periods (T. Roosevelt, Clinton, Jefferson) and did well at it. What distinguishes a good president from a great president -- Washington, Lincoln and FDR from the merely good -- is a crisis: the great ones faced a crisis and did well at it. (Starting a new country, a civil war, and the depression/WW2). (Whereas the worst presidents face a crisis and do terribly at it, often making it worse (Buchanan, Bush '43.))

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