The Spectacle Blog

Putting ‘Executive Experience’ Into Perspective

By on 8.19.11 | 5:17PM

Philip Klein and John McCormack have chimed in with their take on the relative or overstated importance of "executive experience" in a presidential candidate. At issue for both men, as it is for me, is whether Rep. Paul Ryan should run for president. (Also at issue, of course, is whether Michele Bachmann is a viable and creditable presidential candidate. I say: she absolutely is.)

McCormack seems to agrees with my contention that "judgment and ideology are far more important than ‘executive experience.'"

One of a president's most important jobs, he writes,

is to enact good policies. That requires intelligence, sound judgment and principles, the ability to persuade, courage, and character. Real leadership, as opposed to executive experience, is what matters.

One needn't sign bills into law as a governor to be a leader. After all, one-term former congressman and failed Senate candidate Abraham Lincoln did not have any executive experience when he was nominated in 1860. But he did lead on the most pressing issue of the day by proving in the Lincoln-Douglas debates to be the most persuasive opponent of the expansion of slavery.

I'm not putting Ryan on the same pedestal as our nation's finest president, but Lincoln clearly shows that one doesn't need to be a CEO or a governor to be a good president. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were all governors.

And yet all four were very different presidents. The reason Carter was the worst isn't because he didn't have as much experience as the others. It's because he was the most liberal.

Klein disagrees, but really doesn't offer, I think, a very compelling reason why. He says that the federal government has gotten a lot bigger and more complex, which is true, but so what? That's hardly prima facie evidence that a president requires "executive experience."

Instead, what it means, I think, is that a president today has a lot more critical appointments to make. He has to appoint talented and capable executive officers who can well manage the federal behemoth and rein in the bureaucracy.

This, unfortunately, is where George W. Bush seemed to fall short. He appointed, for instance, Michael D. Brown as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Yet Brown seemed ill prepared for this job and out of his depth. And so, when Hurricane Katrina struck, the result was a bureaucratic disaster compounded on top of a natural disaster.

Phil does offer up a more compelling political rationale for "executive experience" in a presidential candidate. "The way you defeat incumbents," he argues,

is not merely by going after their policies, but by making the case that they are incompetent. The incompetence argument is one that appeals to voters who may disagree with you ideologically. It's how Rudy Giuliani defeated David Dinkins as mayor in the liberal New York City and how Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter.

To take back the White House in 2012, Republicans will have to win over independents who voted for Obama over John McCain. An important part of the anti-Obama message will be: "You took a chance last time on somebody young and inexperienced, and it turns out he's completely out of his depth." It's much easier to make that argument with a candidate who has executive experience.

Phil may be right about this; but if so, that's only because too many analysts have hoodwinked the American people into misunderstanding the nature of the presidency. Again, "the president is as much an administrator and delegator as he is an executive."

Phil acknowledges McCormack's point that "there are a number of governors who have been bad presidents." However, Phil adds, "there's no doubt that in Reagan's case, for instance, the experience of having managed a large state, grappled with the legislature, dealt with crises, and overcome mistakes, was a huge asset once he became president."

Again, executive experience is always helpful; I certainly wouldn't discount it. But Phil doesn't fully explain how, exactly, Reagan's "executive experience" was crucial to his success as president. Instead, he assumes that which he wants to believe for political reasons.

The truth is that a good presidential candidate, and a good president, need not have executive experience. What they do require is good life and professional experience to help inform their judgment and public policies. And, on that score, both Michele Bachmann and Paul Ryan are eminently well qualified.

Send to Kindle

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article

More Articles From John R. Guardiano