Saturday, March 08, 2008

Hillary's Lack of Qualifications

March 8, 2008, 11:00 a.m., 3:44, 8:41 p.m.; March 10, 2008, 2:00 p.m.; March 11, 2008, 6:15 p.m.; March 12, 2008, 7:00 a.m.

Hillary's Experience? What experience?

(For a lighthearted "Saturday Night Live" take on these issues March 8 see the video at the end of this blog entry -- where you will also find the results from Wyoming and Mississippi.)

There's been a lot of talk during the Democratic Party's primaries and caucuses about the "experience" and "qualifications" of the candidates.

Senator Hillary Clinton recently surrounded herself with former military officers and American flags and simply proclaimed that both she and Senator John McCain had the experience and qualifications to be "commander-in-chief" -- by which she clearly meant the ability to deal appropriately with another terrorist attack or other domestic emergency, or to take the country into a war that would be professionally conducted and decisively won. About the same time her campaign was running this "3:00 a.m. phone call" political commercial -- showing sleeping children, with an anxious parent fearful for their safety, the commercial asks in effect, "Who do you want in the White House dealing with emergencies of sufficient seriousness that the president must be awakened at 3:00 a.m. to deal with them?" and then closes with a shot of Senator Clinton talking on the phone. (This is the commercial spoofed in the "Saturday Night Live" video.)

I won't comment on the appropriateness of conducting a campaign based on fear -- as President Bush and Vice President Cheney have done with 9/11 and their justifications for starting, and continuing, a war in Iraq. Nor will I dwell on the wisdom of her building up Senator McCain in her effort to contend that she is just as qualified as he is. My point for now is merely the "experience" factor.

For when the Clinton campaign was pressed to provide even one example of her ever having been confronted with a situation remotely similar to what was suggested by the "3:00 a.m. phone call" commercial her campaign spokespersons were, of course, unable to do so.

Not only has she provided little more than her own assertions for the proposition that she is "ready," and "tested," and "experienced," and "qualified" to be "commander-in-chief," her attacks on Senator Obama are equally devoid of support.

She asserts that while she and Senator McCain have the qualifications to be commander-in-chief all that Senator Obama has is a speech in 2002.

This is not the only context in which she has attacked his "lack of experience," ignored the existence of, and substance in, the long list of policy positions on his Web site, or endeavored to trivialize the significance of his charisma, the crowds he has attracted (not to mention the delegate lead he has amassed), the new voters he has potentially brought into the Democratic Party camp, and the education, experience, and philosophical foundations on which he has drawn to bring this about.

There is a hearty irony to her attempt to contrast her "experience" with his.

Don't take my word for it. Read her own words on her Web site. Under "Hillary" the most relevant portions are "Mother & Advocate," "First Lady," and "U.S. Senator." As you read through this material you can't help but be impressed (or depressed) with her almost total absence of administrative experience, and the extent to which her claimed "experience" is precisely what she criticizes in that of Senator Obama: speeches, writing, and "advocacy."

Here are some illustrative excerpts.

"Hillary went to Wellesley College, where she was chosen by her classmates to be the first-ever student commencement speaker. [That's the very first sentence.] . . . Next came Yale Law School, where Hillary . . . began her decades of work as an advocate for children and families. As a law student, Hillary . . . worked on some of the earliest studies . . .. When Bill was elected Governor of Arkansas, Hillary continued to advocate for children . . .. She . . . played a pioneering role in raising awareness of issues . . ..

[As First Lady.] When her husband was elected President in 1992, Hillary's work as a champion for women was recognized . . .. She traveled the globe speaking out against the degradation and abuse of women . . .. In the White House, Hillary led efforts to . . .. She helped launch . . .. Thanks in part to her efforts, . . .. As everyone knows, Hillary's fight for universal health coverage did not succeed. But her commitment to health care for every American has never wavered. She was instrumental in . . .. Hillary's 1995 book It Takes A Village, . . . became an international best seller. . . . Hillary's autobiography, Living History, was also a best seller.

[As U.S. Senator.] In 2000, Hillary was elected to the United States Senate [and] . . . continued her advocacy for children and families . . .. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Hillary worked with her colleagues . . .. She fought to provide . . .. And she continues to work for . . .. She is . . . working to see that . . .. She has visited troops in Iraq and Afghanistan . . .. She has learned first-hand the challenges . . .. Hillary passed legislation . . .. She is an original sponsor of legislation that . . .. She has introduced legislation to . . .. She has supported a variety of . . .. She helped pass legislation that . . .. She has championed legislation to . . .. In the Senate, Hillary has not wavered in her work to . . .. She worked to . . .. She authored . . .. She sponsored legislation . . .. [She] is now leading the fight for . . .. Her strong advocacy for children continues in the Senate. Some of Hillary's proudest achievements have been her . . . legislation . . ., and her legislation to . . .. She has also proposed . . .. She has passed legislation . . .. Hillary has been a powerful advocate for . . .. Her commitment to supporting . . . was hailed by the New York Times as "frank talk. . .." Hillary is one of the original cosponsors . . .. Hillary is strongly committed to . . .. She introduced the . . .."
Now let me put these quotes in context to explain what I do, and do not, mean to suggest with them.

My limited point is simply that her "experience," like that of Senators Obama and McCain, is primarily "life experience" -- plus some useful (but not, standing alone, presidentially-qualifying) legislative experience. Her public interest work, life as First Lady, and brief senate career have been primarily a work of words -- the very thing for which she criticizes Senator Obama in her efforts to set herself apart as somehow more qualified than he is.

That is not to say that she has not spoken out on and written about important issues, volunteered for and otherwise contributed to the staff and boards of non-profit organizations, voted for and otherwise aligned herself with legislation -- much of which I would have agreed with, and even found commendable.

[March 14: However, a little caution may be in order in accepting her assertions of credit for some of what she claims. See Nicholas Johnson, "Hillary Makes Up 'Experience,'" March 14, 2008 (according to a Boston Globe expose, those who actually created and worked to pass the children's health program called SCHIP are irritated by, and refuting, her taking credit for it. Her Web site says that as First Lady "She was instrumental in designing and championing" the program. That blog entry also provides Time magazine's comparable take with regard to her Ireland and Kosovo claims).]

The reason there are ellipses in the place of subject matter in the excerpts above is not because I think those subjects irrelevant or unworthy. It is because the point I wish to make is that each, however commendable, involves speaking and writing. What "championed," "fighting" or "working for" mean in the legislative context is writing and speaking. They mean assigning staff members responsibility for coming up with new legislation (or merely signing on to bills authored by others), questioning witnesses testifying during sub-committee meetings, and talking to colleagues. They do not even necessarily mean that any legislation was ever enacted.

Senators make speeches -- some are creative and courageous speeches, some are lackluster and corrupt speeches, some are speeches they have actually written themselves (though this is rare) and others are merely speeches read from texts provided by staff members or lobbyists. (I have written Senators' speeches on behalf of clients.) But the activity in which senators are engaged, the "experience" they are gaining when they are "fighting" for this or that, is speaking experience.

Clearly, such legislative experience is not insignificant. It's useful experience for a president to have had. It's just not all the experience a president needs.

We take our politics seriously in Iowa.

So prior to the Iowa caucuses I tried to think through a set of "neutral principles" for comparing presidential candidates, and then summarized them in an op ed that was headlined, "Qualities to Keep in Mind When Picking a President" (Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 22, 2008; reproduced in the blog entry, Nicholas Johnson, "Op Ed: Caucus Choices Analysis," December 22, 2008).

Here are some excerpts from that column:

• Forget "electability." Any Democratic Party nominee is electable in 2008. (Although Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's high negatives create some risk.) Consider their ability to govern.

Experience at everything

All have "experience" at something. But a president needs experience at everything. Who has the broadest, deepest range of experience?

An American president is policy wonk in chief as well as commander in chief. Federal personnel director as well as national cheerleader. They must maintain our economy while improving our foreign relations. Above all, they must have superior, large-institution administrative skills and experience.

When they negotiate and deal with other major institutions it gives them credibility as well as real understanding if they've worked within them: Congress, cabinet positions, municipal and state governments, international organizations, and negotiations with foreign leaders.

We don't have a school for presidents. There's no parliamentary system to provide the ultimate prime ministers both administrative and legislative experience.

Quality rankings

So here are the qualities I'm looking for . . ..

• Experience administering large institutions (state or large city governments, corporations [cabinet departments]) . . ..

• A "people person" with charisma or down-home manner, sense of humor (including self-deprecation), or what Molly Ivins called "Elvis" . . ..

• The understanding and credibility earned by working inside both Washington's executive and legislative branches [cabinet departments, independent regulatory commissions, House and Senate] . . ..

• A willingness to put forward courageous, "best policy" proposals, rather than "starting off backing up" . . ..

• Experience working inside international organizations (e.g., U.N., World Bank). . ..

• Understanding of the elements and process of citizen empowerment [e.g., community organizing]. . ..

• An understanding of foreign policy (as distinguished from administering it) . . ..

• An ability to work with, but an independence from, special interest money and influence (the "Washington Establishment") . . ..

However, Clinton's strength in this department is her weakness. She and Bill could probably name all of their 4,000 presidential appointees in one evening without notes. But part of the reason for their millions from corporate lobbyists and PACs is the Washington Establishment's expectation of another pro-corporate, business-as-usual Clinton administration.

• Experience negotiating with foreign leaders . . ..

• Champion of the underdog . . ..
The column included evaluations by these standards of what was then a large field of candidates. While it did not conclude with an endorsement, New Mexico's Governor Bill Richardson obviously was well ranked.

He had, after all, experience in state government (as a governor), federal executive branch government (cabinet; Secretary of Energy), legislative (U.S. House of Representatives), international organizations (U.N. Ambassador), and negotiation (more than one successful release of hostages from hostile countries).

Senators in general, this year's crop of finalists, and Senator Hillary Clinton in particular, do not score very well by these standards -- certainly not well enough for her legitimately to be able to argue that she is "tested" and "qualified" to be president (and "commander-in-chief") while Senator Obama, by contrast, just "doesn't have the necessary experience."

She has not been a mayor, governor, or cabinet officer. She's never served in a state legislature or the U.S. House. She's never held a position in an international organization. She has never (so far as I know) been involved in hostage, trade, treaty or other international negotiations. She's never served in the military or worked in a civilian capacity in the Defense Department. So far as I know, as First Lady she did not even have the clearance to see classified documents that I had as U.S. Maritime Administrator. She's never run a major state or federal government department, or even functioned as a corporate CEO.

I do not assert that Senator Obama is more qualified, or has more experience, than has Senator Clinton -- nor, it should be noted, does he make that claim. Frankly, I think that while their life, and legislative, experiences are somewhat different, they are not, to borrow a phrase, "differences that make a difference" when it comes to their qualifications as a potential president.

If anything, Senator Obama has three additional relevant categories of experience that she does not. One is state legislative experience. (Not incidentally, when his years in the Illinois legislature are added to his years in the U.S. Senate he ends up having more years of legislative experience than she has.) Second, his race, his ties to Kenya, his having lived in Indonesia and among the diverse populations of Hawaii, exceed in my view -- but at least equal -- the ability to improve America's relations abroad that Senator Clinton may have gained from "traveling in 80 countries." Finally, and for reasons I won't take space, and your time, to lay out now, I put enormous weight on his community organizing experience that I believe underlies much, if not all, of what makes him qualified to be president, an authentic agent of change, and so attractive to millions.

But I'm not making the argument, and accepting responsibility for sustaining the burden of proof, that he is more qualified to be president than she -- only that I think Senator Clinton is not creditable and cannot be taken seriously when she asserts that she should be the preferred choice because she is so much more qualified than he is.

(Nor do I find persuasive the demographic arguments put forward by the Clinton camp:

The issue cannot be constructively characterized as how they've done, one-on-one, running against each other in Democratic Party primaries. It means little that she has, sometimes, drawn more heavily than he from natural Democratic Party demographic groups -- whites, without college education, earning under $50,000 a year (as he has drawn more heavily than her from others). Remember that it is Democratic Party primaries we're talking about here.

The question should be: What evidence is there that -- in a match-up between Senators Obama and McCain -- Democratic Party voters and Independents who voted in primaries for Senator Clinton would vote for Senator McCain rather than Senator Obama? I know of none (although I do have a smattering of anecdotal evidence regarding Independents and Democrats who have told me their first preference is Senator Obama, but that if Senator Clinton ends up as the nominee they will vote for Senator McCain). I don't see that it makes a lot of difference, standing alone, how demographic groups have aligned between Senators Clinton and Obama in a given Democratic Party primary. Moreover, most of the polls I have seen indicate pretty consistently that in one-on-one match-ups with Senator McCain, Senator Obama beats him by more than does Senator Clinton -- most recently 12 points to 6 points.)
There are two things she's done that might be thought of as quasi-administrative in nature.

(1) One was the assignment she had, such as it was, to come up with a health care plan for the Clinton Administration. As an "administrator" of that assignment her failed performance ranked with President Bush's administrative skills with Katrina and management of the Iraq War. Even Senator Clinton acknowledges on her Web site, "As everyone knows, Hillary's fight for universal health coverage did not succeed."

(2) The other is her administration of her current presidential campaign. Even her cheerleader-in-chief, her husband and former president Bill Clinton, acknowledges it has been a disaster. Starting off with more money from lobbyists and PACs than any other candidate in either party (I believe), and one of the most powerful political organizations of the 20th Century, with predictions all around that it was hers to lose -- Senator Obama, coming out of nowhere, has been able to amass more state victories (12 in a row at one point), virtually all caucus victories, more popular votes, and more elected delegates (currently about a 150 delegate margin). Her staff has been bickering, some have left, money has been squandered, she had to loan her campaign $5 million of her own money (while continuing to refuse to make public -- as Senator Obama has -- the tax returns that might indicate where that money came from), the campaign's focus continues to shift from "experience" to "solutions" to "tears" to "humor" ("Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show") to, now that she's finally "found her voice," a slash and burn, throw everything including the kitchen sink at Senator Obama whether it's true or not, negative campaign.
This is not just a very thin resume for someone aspiring to assume the most complex administrative job in the world, it's also not very reassuring.

(By contrast, David Wilhelm, Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign chairman who has endorsed Senator Obama, says of the Senator's efforts: “'He has out-worked her, out-organized her and out-raised her, . . .. I know organizational excellence when I see it, and the Obama campaign, win or lose, will serve as a model' of execution of strategy, message discipline, application of new technology and small-donor fund raising." Katharine Q. Seelye, "Bill Clinton Campaign Chair Goes for Obama," New York Times: The Caucus, February 13, 2008, 1:58 p.m.

And: "'Senator Obama went where he had to go,' said former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D), a Clinton backer. 'They had a well-thought-out strategic plan, and they carried it out with real discipline.'" Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray, "Downside of Obama Strategy; Losses in Big States Spur General-Election Fears," Washington Post, March 8, 2008, p. A1.)

She repeatedly refers to her "35 years of experience" -- essentially a reference to everything she's done since leaving law school -- without ever specifying what it was, not to mention how much of it was truly relevant to the work of a president (and, if so, why).

Clearly, she does have seven years' legislative experience as a U.S. Senator -- far less than Senator McCain, but not significantly less than Senator Obama. She has had the "life experience" (including law practice and service on boards) I've already mentioned.

But how much credit can she claim as the spouse of a governor and a president? Based on my own experience, not much.

Do you gain insights and anecdotes from being around (or married to) another? Absolutely. But there is an enormous difference between having decisional responsibility, and merely offering comfort and sympathy to someone who does.

I served as a law clerk to a U.S. Court of Appeals judge (the 5th Circuit's Judge John R. Brown) and a U.S. Supreme Court justice (Justice Hugo Black). (I've just returned from a reunion dinner in the Supreme Court building with other Justice Black clerks and family.) Those experiences, and my ability to extrapolate from them in imagining what other judges do, gives me insights into the judicial process I might otherwise not have. Do they qualify me to be a Court of Appeals judge or Supreme Court justice? Of course not. Would they be of some marginal use were I to be a judge? I suppose.

My wife, Mary Vasey, is one of the nation's experts on "alternative education." She was one of the first to be picked for the national faculty of the Coalition of Essential Schools. She was an early faculty member of Metro High School in Cedar Rapids -- which twice won the U.S. President's award as one of the nation's best high schools. She helped plan the Iowa City alternative high school, Tate. Having retired from Metro, her love of the work, and skill at doing it, is such that she continues to volunteer her time at Tate.

I've lived with her for nearly 20 years. I've heard her after-school stories of what we call in church, the "joys and sorrows" of an alternative high school teacher. I've attended alternative high school events over the years, and come to know other teachers. Mary and I usually talk policy and politics at breakfast, and often that discussion involves K-12 issues.

Does my having been a spouse of an alternative high school teacher qualify me to be one? Not on your life; of that I am unalterably confident. I wouldn't last a week.

Similarly, I don't think being the wife of a governor provides the experience of being a governor, and I don't think being the wife of a president is the equivalent of the experience of being a president.

Think about it. If she were still Senator Hillary Rodham, if she did not have the name recognition that comes from what she went through as Bill Clinton's wife, if she did not have his last name, would she now be one of the entrants, let alone one of the two finalists, in the Democratic Party's presidential primary process based on her "experience"? I don't think so.

What about her foreign policy "experience"? "I've traveled to 80 countries," she tells us. What she fails to tell us is what she did in those countries. Was she there as a U.S. Ambassador, embassy employee, military officer or even Peace Corps worker? As the United States' U.N. Ambassador? As a U.N. (or other international organization's) official? Was she engaged in negotiations of any kind -- whether on behalf of American corporations, improved trade relations, seeking the release of hostages, or to obtain treaties? So far as I know, the answer is "no" to all of the above. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe these were, for the most part, "showing the flag," publicity and ceremonial visits.

President Kennedy once introduced himself as "the man who accompanied Jackie Kennedy to France." Notwithstanding that exalted billing, I don't think Jackie Kennedy would have suggested even that role qualified her to run for president.

I've traveled to something like 40 countries. Some have been holidays -- although even then I often would call on public officials or others related to my work. Other trips have involved working with foreign officials on official government business. Frankly, I would not begin to suggest that my 40 countries made me half as qualified to be president as Senator Clinton's 80 countries. I wouldn't even suggest it would qualify me to be an Assistant Secretary of State.

Has her travel been of some marginal benefit in contributing to her understanding other cultures and nations? I would assume so. That's one of the values of travel -- for anyone who's sufficiently humble and observant. I just think she's making far, far too much of it.

I would never say any of the three senators is "unqualified" to be president. I just don't think any of them -- especially Senator Clinton -- can make the case that they do have the experience and qualifications to be president while one of the others does not.

I think the following "Saturday Night Live" sketch from March 8, 2008, puts in perspective Senator Clinton's portrayal of the alleged contrast between her experience and that of Senator Obama. (If you get an "error" message in using the video below, use the link above.)

And see also, Matthew Yglesias, "Experience Gap," The, March 11, 2008, 9:42 a.m., which reproduces a memorandum from Greg Craig, former director, State Department Policy Planning staff (e.g., "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" -- following which he details the supporting data.)

The video appears to be no longer available. However, here is a transcript of the text:
Episode 1526 | Season 33 | 03/08/2008

Cold Open: An Unfair and Deceptive Message from Hillary Clinton

It's 3 A.M. and the phone rings somewhere in our nation's capital. President Obama calls Hillary in desperate need of help. Iran has developed a nuclear device with the help of the axis of evil. They've lied to him, and now he's in a blind, unreasoning panic born from inexperience. What's Obama to do?

Hillary tells Obama to man up. Russia will back down or risk violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Hillary insists that the Secretary of State can explain, but Obama doubts that Secretary Sharpton can, admitting this wasn't his best appointment. Obama thanks Hillary and apologizes for calling every night, glossing over her request for payment if he's going to keep calling. He would trade all of his superficial charm and rock star appeal for an iota of Hillary's capabilities.

Hillary admits that what we've just witnessed is a dramatization, based on facts. Well, not facts, but what she calls specious campaign talking points. If you want a better future for our country, it's not too late. Call or write the offices of the Democratic National Committee. With enough pressure, we can convince party leaders that they've made a huge mistake. And one more thing... Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!

EXTRA - MISSISSIPPI UPDATE - The Washington Post is reporting this morning [March 12, 7:00 a.m.] that, with 90% of Mississippi's precincts reporting, Senator Obama received 60% of the votes (221,874) and Senator Clinton received 38% (142,671). This translates into 17 delegates for Senator Obama (for a total of 1596) and 11 for Senator Clinton (bringing her total to 1484) -- a 112 delegate margin for Senator Obama.

The New York Times reports [March 12, 7:20 a.m.] that with 99% of the precincts reporting Barack Obama has 60.7% of the votes (253,441) and Hillary Rodham Clinton has 37.1% (154,852)-- and says the 33 pledged delegate allocation has yet to be determined. It calculates the elected delegate totals to be 1348 Obama to 1210 Clinton -- a 138 vote margin for Senator Obama -- while reporting the Associated Press' calculation to be 1385 to 1237, a 148-vote spread. With super delegates it's 1510 to 1403 (107 spread) from the Times and 1596 to 1484 (a 112 spread) from the AP.

EXTRA - WYOMING UPDATE (March 8, 2008, 8:41 p.m. CT): With 100% Precincts Reporting Obama has 61% of the Votes, Clinton 38%.

Wyoming Democratic Caucus

Candidate. . . . Votes. .%
Barack Obama. . .5,378. .61
Hillary Clinton. 3,312. .38
Other. . . . . . . .70. .1
Key: Red Checkmark Winner
Precincts: 100% | Updated: 9:41 PM ET | Source: AP [as reported on Washington Post Web site] Delegates at stake: 12; Obama 7, Clinton 5

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