Friday, September 05, 2008

Does Experience Make a Good President?

One of the big themes of this campaign has become experience, both of Obama and now of Palin. In Karthika's post and comments below, this is a major point of interesting debate.

But does experience matter? To what extent should experience matter when deciding the presidency? Do more experienced politicians make better presidents?

The answer seems to be a resounding no. It just doesn't seem to matter. Some of the most experienced politicians elected president have been disasters while some of the least experienced have been among the most successful.

Look at some of the experienced leaders who became president:

Herbert Hoover--an international hero because of his work against starvation in World War I. He became Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge. The ultimate Washington insider and considered by all to be a very experienced choice for the presidency when he won in 1928.

Richard Nixon--there are personal issues here of course, but no one can question Nixon's experience. But that experience, which in fact suggested the kind of issues the nation would later face, did not prevent him from being one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Yes, he accomplished some things both domestically and internationally, but he also personally created the cynical nature of modern politics.

George W. Bush--need I go further? 2 term governor of Texas, so he had that "executive experience" everyone talks about. Yeah, that turned out well.

And let's think of inexperienced presidents who were very successful. I am talking here about success on their own terms, not on whether we can look back upon what they did with pride.

Abraham Lincoln. This alone should kill the experience theme. One of the least experienced people to ever take the office. He seemed to do a pretty good job.

James K. Polk. Also a pretty inexperienced politician on the national stage, but he got every single major goal of his accomplished in his one term, even if that included waging a war with Mexico to steal half their nation.

Theodore Roosevelt. I hate Roosevelt with a passion, but he was a reforming guy who took power after McKinley was killed. He was incredibly successful in almost everything he did and helped create the modern regulatory state. There was nothing in his background suggesting he would a successful national politician. I think he spent more time ranching in North Dakota than holding elected office before he took power.

John F. Kennedy. Perhaps the best parallel to Obama. He was a nationally known Senator, largely because of good media relations. But he was young and inexperienced too. I think Kennedy is a really overrated president, but he most of what he set out to do, or was on the way to doing so when he was killed.

So I just don't think we should be focusing on experience as any judge of future success in the Oval Office (or in the VP office for that matter). There is just not enough evidence to make any call one way or another as to whether experience will help any particular politician make the right decisions for the nation, get legislation passed, or have a successful term in office. Experience could certainly be a selling point but a lack of experience can be an equally compelling reason to cast a vote for someone.

Thus, while it might have made OK political sense for McCain to attack Obama for his lack of experience, it is not an argument that should sway people. Moreover, there are many reasons to attack Sarah Palin. She is an corrupt, power-abusing, secessionist extremist who wants to deny you the right of choice that she claims her family just exercised. And Palin is unusually inexperienced, though less so for the Vice-Presidency. But her lack of experience really rings hollow as a line of attack, particularly when she has so many other, more salient, vulnerabilities.