Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Is Experience the New Electability?

In 2004 John Kerry became the Democratic nominee because of a consensus that he was electable. In other words nobody voted for him because they wanted to vote him, they voted for him because they thought other people would want to vote for him. Turns out they were wrong. Electability never had any real meaning in substance, although there were certain traits that people assumed defined it: a long political record, national exposure, lots of money, military service, a boring enough personality to stay out of trouble. But the reality is that no one really knew how any of these traits related to a candidate's general election prospects (and we ultimately found that they relate very poorly). Despite the utter lack of a rational basis for the electability theory, however, there was an overpowering consensus among talking heads and political wags that electability existed and had the basic form described above. I found it infuriating at the time, and still do.

A considerable amount of ink has been spilled in the past few weeks on Barack Obama's prospects as a candidate, and I'm concerned that I'm starting to feel a new, and equally unfounded (and equally pervasive), consensus forming on the matter of experience. Take, for example, this Slate column by John Dickerson. Dickerson's experience discussion is focused on Vladimir Putin's provocative remarks at the recent Munich security conference.

(As an aside I'd like to mention how remarkably refreshing it was to see Bob Gates respond to Putin in a responsible and helpful fashion. It's taken six years, but the Bush administration finally found someone who can talk foreign policy without sounding like a petulant child.)

Dickerson compares Obama to John McCain, who in Dickerson's view clearly has the requisite foreign policy experience to be a good candidate. Obama, he suggests, doesn't have the experience to "sit across from blunt and tough leaders like Vladimir Putin". But the fact is very few Americans do have experience dealing with foreign leaders. Some of them have already been president, most of the others were cabinet secretaries (who for whatever reason rarely run for the presidency), and maybe you count a few senators like McCain (and longstanding senators have hardly distinguished themselves as successful presidential candidates). In general the vast majority of presidential candidates have been in the exact same position Obama finds himself today. Why is his experience level being singled out?

Dickerson gives Obama a backhanded compliment saying that at least he has more experience than Bush did in 2000. But rather than compare Obama to the worst foreign policy president in recent memory (maybe ever), why not compare him to some of the better ones. How much foreign policy experience did Bill Clinton have when he took office (or, if you're so inclined, Ronald Reagan)? It wasn't experience that made Clinton successful, it was his intelligence, diligence, compassion, and empathy. He learned about foreign nations, analyzed problems, and was able to connect with foreign leaders and people.

And how has experience helped John McCain? Dickerson's example of McCain's response to Putin shows that at least he has some judgment, but what about Iraq? McCain has been monumentally wrong for the past four years about the biggest American foreign policy blunder in decades. How has his experience helped him there? McCain, maybe more than any other politician I'm aware of, demonstrates the danger of too much experience in Washington. He's been burned too badly and too many times and is simply not the man he was six or eight years ago. His long exposure to the viciousness of national politics has consumed him.

Obama shares all of the traits that made Clinton one of the most internationally popular presidents in US history. He is phenomenally intelligent, broadly educated and well-read, intellectually curious, and intuitively able to connect with audiences and convey important ideas so that they can be understood by everyone. And his mixed national, ethnic, and racial heritage gives him, as Dickerson acknowledges, a leg up on the competition in terms of foreign perception of him, and, by extension, the US.

As Obama gets further into the process and has to formulate more of a foreign policy agenda, I will certainly be open to substantive criticisms of his positions and plans, but can we please not discount him based on this specious conception of the need for foreign policy experience? At this point he looks at least as good as anyone else in the race on foreign policy, maybe better. Let's just wait and see what he has to say before riding him too hard.

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