I’ve been thinking about the experience issue between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama recently. It seems as if the issue has disappeared from the mouths of professional pundits, but it’s one that a lot of people are probably influenced by. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s something of a rorschach test, like much of the democratic primary.

Hillary Clinton has more years as a United States senator (7 to 3). Barack Obama has more years in elected office (11 to 7). Hillary Clinton has more years as a public figure (a whole ton). How do we weight those factors? If we look at the first two, the role of a US senator is probably what is most important, and it gives Clinton the edge. Yet this is an odd issue for this campaign: neither candidate has a truly distinguished record of holding public office–contrast them to Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, candidates whose two and three decades of service as Senators earned them nothing.†

So if this is an issue, it depends on Hillary Clinton’s time as first lady. I think it would be foolish to deny that this experience counts for something. For eight years, she was at the heart of what was going on in the Clinton administration, and she must have learned something from that time.

The rorschach test is deciding how much that counts? Is it just an extra little bit of credit that she gets, an intangible, but not one that would sway your opinion? Or will the experience she has from that time make her much more ready to get things done the moment she enters the White House?  I’m an Obama supporter, which indicates that I have an opinion: I think that he’s got experience enough and that the experience that she has didn’t prevent her from making a number of gross mistakes (voting for the Iraq  war being the big one).

Nonetheless, the more I think, the more I’ve come to think that it’s hard to make a charge like that stick.  I’ve come to see the experience issue as impossible to adjudicate.  Surely there’s some fact of the matter out there, but I can’t demonstrate my position to someone who sees Clinton’s experience as important anymore than they can demonstrate the importance of that experience to me.  In some ways that’s good news: the campaign has bogged down in these interminable issues because there are no major divisions in the party, because all the candidates have a lot of good ideas.

† Both candidates also have interesting experience outside of public affairs.  Weighing that goes well beyond what I’m doing here, though it could be important.


3 responses to “Experience

  1. I get what you’re saying, but remember, George W. was elected in 2000, and even among his own party he was the least experienced of the bunch. I’m also an Obama supporter, and I think likability and elect-ability always wins out. But that’s just me!

  2. The interesting thing about George Bush was that whereas the democratic primary currently has three relatively inexperienced people competing, Bush was the outlier in 2000–he really was much less experienced than McCain.

    I’m curious why you mention the case though. Bush was a bad president. I’m inclined to think that’s temperament–no amount of experience would have helped him. But I’m not sure what point you’re making by mentioning him.

    By the same token, I think that McCain was much more electable–I suspect that if he’d gotten the nomination, there would have been no need for the Supreme Court to rule on recounts, McCain would have just won.

  3. I think the Clinton campaign’s emphasis on “experience” despite the fact that both candidates seem fairly inexperienced is in part an attempt to cash in on her name recognition. Absent a detailed analysis, Clinton *seems* much more experienced simply because we’ve been hearing about her since 1992, whereas pretty much the first time anyone heard of Obama was in 2004. I don’t think I”m being overly cynical when I suggest that this matters much more than any details of particular experiences.