Experience No Predictor of Presidential Performance

Richard Nixon served in the armed forces, the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and as Vice President prior to becoming President. This experience served him well in successes such as opening dialogue with China. But he also learned how the game was played in Washington. Perhaps too well. He disgraced the office of president and was forced to resign from office.

Lyndon Johnson had long tenure in the House and Senate — he was Majority Leader in the upper chamber prior to becoming Vice President. As President. He pushed through the Civil Rights bill and expanded our presence in Viet Nam. He was driven from office.

On the other hand, Franklin Roosevelt served as governor of New York for four years and was an Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Yet he brought the nation through the depression and World War II. Teddy Roosevelt also served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He was governor of New York for two years and Vice President for six months. He’s generally regarded as one of the country’s most successful presidents.

Senator Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president rests in large part to her claim of superior experience to her opponents. Now that Senators Joseph Biden, Chris Dodd and Governor Bill Richardson are out of the race, the claim has some validity. The question is, does the breadth of a candidate’s experience predict how well he or she will do once in office?

Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times in January, doesn’t think so. He compares the impact of the Roosevelts, Abraham Lincoln (a single term in Congress) and Woodrow Wilson (governor for two years) to that of William McKinely, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon. Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. While he acknowledges their skills (and undervalues their accomplishments) he notes “none are among our very greatest presidents.”

Mr. Kristof reminds us that in 1992, Democrats nominated a candidate whose only government service was serving as Attorney General and Governor of Arkansas: Bill Clinton. The Republican candidate, George H. W. Bush, had served in Congress, represented the United States before the United Nations, was Ambassador to China and spent eight years as Vice President. Oh yes, and was the sitting President.  “The same old experience is not relevant,” said candidate Clinton.  “He suggested that the most useful training comes not from hanging around the White House and Congress but rather from experience ‘rooted in the real lives of real people’ so that ‘it will bring real results if we have the courage to change.’”

Of course, that was then and this is now. Senator Clinton will continue to work “ready on day one” into most every statement she makes. Of course, that begs the question of what she’s ready to do on day one, but for now she’ll be pushing her experience advantage right up through the nominating convention. Then she’ll pivot to focus on public policy.

This is a good strategy for her campaign, since it’s all she’s really got. In law, the axiom is, “When you don’t have the facts on your side, argue the law. When you don’t have the law on your side, argue the facts. And if you have neither on your side, B.S.” The public policy differences between the leading Democrats is slim. Senator Barack Obama has conrnered the market on inspiration, bringing people together and symbolizing change. So all Senator Clinton has to differentiate herself is experience. After the conventions, the public policy differences between the parties will become topic number one.

Experience may not really matter once the candidate moves into the oval office. And it certainly doesn’t predict a president’s future place in history. But in politics, as in law, you use what you’ve got.

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