Experience can be a drawback
By Christopher Caldwell
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: June 29 2007 19:20 | Last updated: June 29 2007 19:20
After a fundraising dinner in Chicago this week, Illinois senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama made a verbal gaffe that sums up his predicament in defeating Hillary Clinton for the Democratic party’s nomination. “I’m sure the Clintons can raise more money than us,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “She was president – or he was president – for eight years.” Mr Obama is arguably the upper chamber’s best thinker and orator and certainly its best writer. He is simultaneously in closer touch with the party’s hardline base (he opposed the Iraq war from the outset) and more palatable to Republican and independent voters (polls show he fares better than Mrs Clinton does against all Republican challengers). He continues to be a formidable fundraiser and is expected to match Mrs Clinton when quarterly accounts are made public next week.
Yet Mrs Clinton has one great advantage among partisan Democrats that Mr Obama is finding it difficult to surmount: her “experience”. Voters and fundraisers consistently allude to it in interviews; Mrs Clinton strains to show it off. (“I have fought for more than 35 years to raise educational standards,” she said on Thursday night at Howard University.) It is working. In a Gallup poll released this week, Mrs Clinton has the loyalty of 35 per cent of Democratic voters, versus 20 for Mr Obama.
It is not obvious, however, what people mean by experience or why Mrs Clinton is deemed to have so much more of it. Both candidates are, relative to most of their rivals, neophytes. Mr Obama is in his first term as senator, Mrs Clinton in the opening months of her second. Before that, Mr Obama was editor of the Harvard Law Review, a community organiser, a lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago, a state legislator and an unsuccessful candidate for Congress. Mrs Clinton, a lawyer, was made the custodian of various policy projects when her husband held power. Where is the advantage to Mrs Clinton? To say that her deeds were done on a national stage, while Mr Obama has been in the public eye only since 2004, is to measure their relative fame rather than their relative experience.
Both candidates have career experience that is arguably relevant to the presidency. Stacking them up against one another requires figuring out what kind of experience one gains by being married to a powerful executive and the nature of the non-constitutional position of US “first lady”. Was Mrs Clinton a combination of apprentice, adviser and inheritor, Georges Pompidou to her husband’s Charles de Gaulle? Or was she simply an observant and ambitious relative, George W. to her husband’s George H.W. Bush?
Mrs Clinton managed, at least for the first two years of her husband’s presidency, to seize real policymaking power. But Carl Bernstein, the most thorough (and by no means the least sympathetic) of her recent biographers, judges that she failed wherever she did. “With the notable exception of her husband’s libidinous carelessness, the most egregious errors, strategic and tactical, of the Bill Clinton presidency, particularly in its infancy, were traceable to Hillary,” Mr Bernstein writes, “. . . For the first time in American history, a president’s wife sent her husband’s presidency off the rails.” Mr Bernstein, who takes seriously the idea that the Clinton presidency was a “co-presidency”, at least for its first two years, blames Mrs Clinton for most of the missteps that resulted in the Republican congressional landslide of 1994. These include the politicisation of White House staff, an over-ambitious healthcare plan and a high-handedness towards key legislators.
The basic thing a politician seeks to do is turn himself from a public nobody into a public somebody. The big challenge is building a political organisation – a task that is part managerial, part financial and part intellectual, and that involves both long-term planning and an infinity of snap judgments, many of which are undertaken when one is still powerless, vulnerable and shut off from inside information. This is the essence of being a political executive and Mrs Clinton has had to do relatively little of it. Her political organisation – like that of President Bush, but unlike that of Ronald Reagan or Mr Clinton or Mr Obama – came largely pre-assembled. It is a close call, but here the advantage in experience goes to Mr Obama.
What is more, as a black politician, Mr Obama has a longer row to hoe than Mrs Clinton as a female one. This is only partly because the US has historically had more racism and less sexism than other western countries. The larger problem is that US blacks, who owe much of their advancement to political activism, seldom recognise themselves in the anti-statist rhetoric that has dominated US politics for a quarter-century. A black politician who wants to develop a national following while being hailed as “authentic” must square an ideological circle.
If Mr Obama’s experience reveals more competence, Mrs Clinton’s reveals more resilience. Experience is also about learning to react to crises and Mrs Clinton met the attempt to impeach her husband with a steely obstinacy. Whether steely obstinacy is necessarily a plus in an administration not victimised by overzealous prosecutors is another question. The country has lately had a bad experience with an obstinate president “finishing off” a war launched by a relative in years past. It is possible that Mrs Clinton’s ideology has hardened along the lines of 1990s conflicts that no longer exist.
That does not seem to worry Democrats. Voters may have reasons to believe that Mrs Clinton would make a better president than Mr Obama. But they are wrong if they think that experience is one of them.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard