Sunday, March 30, 2008

Gazette Op Ed: Candidates' "Experience"

March 30, 2008, 7:20 a.m.; March 31, 2008, 9:00 a.m. [clarification at bottom of entry]

Politics: Assessing Candidates' "Experience"

Nicholas Johnson

The Gazette

March 30, 2008, p. A9

There’s little significant difference between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as lawyers who are well educated, thoughtful, widely informed and fully capable of formulating proposals on numerous topics. Both are articulate, though Obama has the charisma advantage.

But the experience qualifying someone to be president requires a lot more than having been married to one, proposing good ideas or world travel.

As someone who has served during the administrations of three presidents, I believe the presidency is one of the most complex administrative jobs imaginable.

There’s no perfect, qualifying “experience.” But two things can help.

One is experience at administering large institutions: a federal cabinet-level department, a state government, military branch, major university or corporation.

The other is the understanding and rapport earned by having worked in institutions with which a president must relate: city, county and state government; the federal executive, legislative, judicial and administrative branches; international organizations and embassies; labor unions and Wall Street, among others.
By these standards both Democrats and Sen. John McCain are unimpressive.

None has served as mayor or governor; none has headed a cabinet department; none has helped administer the Pentagon or CIA; none has worked for international organizations, been ambassador to the United Nations or a foreign country; none has been a union officer or corporate CEO. None has headed delegations negotiating with foreign governments over trade agreements, release of hostages or treaties.

Each has the “legislative experience” of making speeches and signing bills, though none as House speaker or Senate leader. McCain has 25 years in the U.S. House and Senate, Obama 12 years in the Illinois and U.S. senates and Clinton the least with eight years in the U.S. Senate.

McCain and Obama have little to no administrative experience, and Clinton’s record is spare and negative.

Her Web site acknowledges her health care efforts “did not succeed,” her administration of the campaign has been charitably characterized as “a disaster” and critics say she’s grossly exaggerating her “experience” and significance of contributions to the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and peace in Ireland and Kosovo.

By contrast, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign chairman, David Wilhelm, said, “I know organizational excellence when I see it” and characterizes Obama’s campaign as “a model.” Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Clinton supporter, said Obama has administered his campaign “with real discipline.”

Compare these candidates’ “experience” with that of Gov. Bill Richardson: 15 years’ legislative experience in the U.S. House, understanding of state government from two terms as governor and of federal government from the Department of Energy, the significant administrative experience as a governor and cabinet secretary and the international perspective of a former U.N. ambassador. His international accomplishments, including successful hostage negotiations with Saddam Hussein and others, inspired five Nobel Peace Prize nominations.

[As political junkies may recall, Governor Richardson's experience was creatively made the subject of one of his early commercials that attracted a lot of attention and boosted his support early on -- though not enough to keep him in the race -- with its final line from a job interviewer: "So, what makes you think you can be president?"

I’m not suggesting a Richardson write-in campaign. But his is the kind of resume that would provide legitimate support for a presidential candidate’s claims to being more experienced — “tested” and “ready from day one” — than any of the three now running.

That doesn’t mean any of the three is unqualified to be president or is inadequately experienced. It just means it’s a bit disingenuous for them to argue their experience makes them more qualified than the others.

As former State Department Policy Planning Director Greg Craig has said: “When your entire campaign is based upon a claim of experience, it is important that you have evidence to support that claim. Hillary Clinton’s argument that she has passed ‘the commander in chief test’ is simply not supported by her record.”

McCain and Obama have life experiences no less valuable that those of Clinton. McCain was a POW. Obama’s community organizing background gives him a unique citizen-empowerment, government-from-the-bottomup-not-top-down, approach to the presidency.

All are qualified; none is uniquely “experienced.” Clinton loses credibility by suggesting otherwise.
Nicholas Johnson of Iowa City, a three-time presidential appointee and one-time congressional candidate, maintains

[Prior blog entries regarding candidates "experience" include,

Nicholas Johnson, "Compassion and Experience," March 27, 2008;

Nicholas Johnson, "Clinton Shouldn't Lie About What's Videotaped," March 22, 2008;

Nicholas Johnson, "Hillary Makes Up Experience," March 14, 21, 2008;

Nicholas Johnson, "Hillary's Lack of Qualifications," March 8, 10, 11, 12, 2008.]
March 31: State29 has commented regarding this column that "Nicholas Johnson has an Op Ed . . . about the kind of 'experience' a Presidential candidate should have. He isn't impressed with any of the choices on either side of the aisle, and has a bit of a longing for Bill Richardson." State29, "Experience, Schmerience," March 30, 2008. Because State29 is nothing if not perceptive and a close reader, I suspect others may have drawn these conclusions as well.

So, to clarify:

1. I intended one message and one message only in this column. It's contained in the concluding two sentences: "All [Senators Obama, Clinton and McCain] are qualified; none is uniquely 'experienced.' Clinton loses credibility by suggesting otherwise." In short, it was not that "he isn't impressed with any of the choices on either side of the aisle." It was simply that to the extent Senator Clinton (or anyone else) thinks "experience" is relevant to "qualifications" the differences between the "experience" of the three are so insignificant that "Clinton loses credibility" by trying to make the case that she should be the preferred candidate because the experience she has had is so much greater than that of the other two.

2. While I do think the kinds of experience I mention in this column are useful for a president, I wouldn't necessarily argue that a president "should have" them. (a) For starters, few if any candidates would be able to have all the categories of experience I mention. (b) There are certainly many examples of presidents with one or more of those categories of experience who have made a mess of things -- our current president (with experience as a governor) included. (c) Similarly, there are good things that can be said about presidents whose predominant experience was as a U.S. senator: Harry Truman, Jack Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.

3. To the extent I do think "experience" relevant to "qualifications" it the breadth of experience that I find relevant -- for the reasons listed in the column.

4. I wouldn't say "he isn't impressed" with any of the three. I expressly said, "All are qualified." It's just that, to the extent I have enthusiasm for any one or more of them, that enthusiasm comes from "qualifications" other than what's reflected from their breadth of experience.

5. Nor would I say that I have a "longing" for Governor Bill Richardson. I was referring to him, in this context, simply as an illustration, an example, of a candidate who does have a breadth of experience -- "that's what a breadth of experience looks like" -- by way of contrasting his experience with the relative lack of a breadth of experience on the part of Senators Obama, Clinton and McCain. (On the other hand, I would clearly include Richardson among those candidates I would find "qualified," and one whose personal manner made him one of my favorites with whom to spend time.)

It doesn't speak well of my writing, I know, to have to write a second column to explain the first. But I thought it worthwhile to try to clear up my mis-communications. Hopefully, this has done that -- rather than just make it worse.

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