Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Decisive Issues, Part II: Experience

For my take on Hillary's "35 years of experience," see my previous post. Now I am going to take a look at how the issue of "experience" might work in the campaign. I'm not going to look at their total records, but at what I call their "defining experience" - what is the key experience that has shaped them, that they can claim has prepared them for the presidency. Once again, this is about McCain, Hillary, and Obama.

McCain's defining experience is, obviously, his experience as a POW. What makes this special is not just that he survived horrendous conditions and torture, but that, in doing so, he never gave up. There's absolutely no question that he put the interests of others ahead of his.

Obama's defining experience is harder to pin down to one specific episode, but for sake of brevity I'm going to point to his experience as a community organizer in Chicago. As a graduate of Columbia and Harvard Law, he could have gotten a job on Wall Street, and by this point in his life, he would be worth millions. But he chose to walk the streets of Chicago. Again, there is very little doubt that he has put the interests of others ahead of his own. He also taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago for ten years. Chicago is one of the most intellectually demanding, but also one of the most conservative, colleges in the country. So when Obama claims that he can work with conservatives and Republicans, this is part of what he means - he spent years listening to very sophisticated conservative arguments, and arguing against them.

Hillary's defining experience is easy to pinpoint: her years as First Lady. This is an unusual argument, never made before in this country. This has both positive and negative implications. The 1990s were very good times for many people. But her signature attempt to change the world for the better, the health care debate of 1993-94, was a disaster. It's important to remember why it was a disaster. Hillary claims that she can stand up to conservative attacks. But on that occasion, she couldn't. And Democrats at the time controlled both houses of Congress. Critics claimed that she was overly secretive, and my recollection is that they're right. If memory serves, she gathered a couple hundred people, locked them in a room for several months, and then presented her plan, without consulting Congress or other stakeholders. What's important to note here is that this was her approach as First Lady, after she had had years in which to supposedly hone her abilities to get things done. It's indicative of her instincts and her temperament - she doesn't naturally reach out to people who disagree with her. She claims that she has learned her lesson, and has made admirable attempts to reach out, both in New York, and in the Senate. But the fact that she didn't do that when she was in the White House is significant.

Another key question is: at what point in her career has Hillary put the interests of others ahead of her own? She put her husband's career ahead of her own when she moved to Arkansas. But she had a career of her own in Arkansas. She also combined her interests with his, so there's not a great sacrifice on her part.

Here's how I think the races will play out:

McCain-Obama: McCain wins decisively on the amount of experience. But Obama has searched out and met significant challenges, physically (the South Side of Chicago is not exactly Disneyland), organizationally (community organizing), intellectually (Harvard Law) and ideologically (U of Chicago). So McCain is tough, but so is Obama. Both have put the interests of other people ahead of their own. And McCain's experience comes with a price, i.e. his age. Obama counters that he is a fresh face. Advantage: McCain, but not by much.

McCain-Hillary: Hillary's claim that being in the White House means that she is ready "on Day One," rings true for her supporters. Against McCain's experience as a POW, however, it doesn't hold up so well. Republicans will frame it as being a fighter pilot and surviving torture vs. working as a high-priced corporate lawyer and hosting state dinners. If I were a feminist, I would not want to watch that debate play out in the national spotlight. Advantage: McCain by a mile.

1 comment:

Gwennegaia said...

John - I have never heard any clarification on Obama's organizing activities in Chicago - just what did he do?

I believe I heard that both Hillary and Obama polled higher than McCain -

I an still afraid that Hillary will be too polarizing for this country - the partisan divide will continue - there are too many Repub's that hate her. I think that Obama or McCain can draw support from both parties if they are elected Pres - I'm still for Obama. I liked Edward's for a long time, but he is just not making it, and his 'fighting' mentality and energy may just continue the partisan, divisive energy in Washington........

I'm worried about the strength of the Clinton political machine - hoping Obama won't get mowed down........if Hillary was really concerned about the future of this country, she might realize the divisiveness she will reinforce, and not run.............