Political Hay

Experience Counts

How to determine if a presidential candidate has what it takes.

By 6.11.07

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As we go through more rounds of presidential debates and continue our trudge through the endless campaign we will hear a lot about "experience."

Those who have completed only one (John Edwards) or two (Fred Thompson) or even no (Barack Obama) terms in the Senate will argue their experience outside the Senate as lawyers or writers is also relevant in assessing their ability to take on the intellectual rigors of the presidency.

Conversely, if you have made your career in the Senate (John McCain) or have been inside the White House before (Hillary Clinton) you will make a compelling argument that in dangerous times and with complex legislative battles ahead it is better to know the ins and outs of the Washington power structure than storm the gates for the first time.

Those whose experience is largely outside of Washington will argue that running the nation's largest city (Rudy Giuliani) or a Democratic-dominated state (Mitt Romney) are the best training grounds for dealing with a complex federal government and a contentious opposing party.

There is certainly a case to be made that recent presidents like Jimmy Cater and George W. Bush who lacked foreign policy experience before ascending to the presidency fared poorly. Yet for every Carter there is a Ronald Reagan who could see what the "experts" could not -- for example, the solution to the Cold War was "we win, you lose."

So experience in and of itself does not ensure success, nor is there a single type of experience which might prepare one for the presidency. Nevertheless, experience can be viewed as evidence the candidate can do the job. Looked at this way, there are several types of experience which may be helpful, indeed essential, in determining presidential timber.

First, voters would do well to look for experience in dealing with adversity or crisis. FDR survived personal adversity, JFK became a hero in war, and Reagan was tested by personal hardship and student riots. Later all were known for their mettle and grace as president. Under stress has the candidate been cool, composed and thoughtful or does adversity bring shrill defensiveness? The presidency is not a TV ad -- it cannot be scripted and you get no retakes. It is fair for voters to look askance at the candidate who might appear to offer nonchalance good cheer or folksy charm but has never shown grit under fire -- whether literal or figurative.

Second, voters might want to see evidence of intellectual creativity and imagination. As we vividly saw in the Bush administration, advisors have limitations and are often wrong, so ultimately we must rely on the president to generate an agenda and work to solve both the political and policy problems of the day. A well thought out philosophy of governance, the ability to creatively solve problems and a record of innovation would be compelling evidence that a candidate is up for the job. Is the candidate recycling clever aphorisms or offering thoughtful responses which show an active intellect?

Third, experience in leading a great enterprise can foretell the ability to lead the country. Eisenhower led a war and Teddy Roosevelt led the Rough Riders and the state of New York. Whether heading a business, a city, a state or a legislative agenda, a candidate can demonstrate skills he will need to tame the enormous federal bureaucracy, competently select and fire advisors and manage multiple endeavors. It is fine and sometimes necessary to heckle government from the sidelines but we are selecting a chief executive not a pundit.

Fourth, a candidate with experience in persuading and cajoling those who disagree with him would demonstrate qualifications to succeed at the bully pulpit, a key aspect of the modern presidency. President Bush has been roundly criticized by both opponents and supporters for lacking the ability to make his case on issues from Iraq to immigration with clarity and without casting aspersions on his foes. Has a candidate "sold" skeptical opponents or allies on a course of action or a policy approach? The president is nothing if not the persuader in chief and a record of persuading those who disagree, not just pleasing those who agree, is essential to the job.

It is easy in a campaign to get caught up in the latest debate soundbite or the newest YouTube clip, but talk is cheap. Given the demands of the presidency, it seems wise to be skeptical of a novice and look for a record, not just a promise, of successful leadership.

Since history demonstrates that there is no perfect resume to guarantee a great or even good president, voters would be well advised to look for evidence the candidate has done the things he'll have to do as president -- navigate in a crisis, creatively solve problems, lead large undertakings and convince others to follow. The candidate who has done many or all of these deserves a serious look; the candidate who hasn't done any might be advised to get some more experience.

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