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Experience and Politics

I don’t normally write about politics but something has been intriguing me as of late: the idea of political experience and its relation to a candidate’s competency as U.S. President. As you may know, the lack-of-experience argument is perhaps the Republican’s central argument against Barack Obama in the current campaign. And ever since the announcement of the inexperienced Sarah Palin as McCain’s VP, it has been a central argument of the Democrats. It is interesting to note that the lack-of-experience argument is not new. It seems that Richard Nixon used this argument against JKF in 1960, George H. W. Bush used it against Bill Clinton in 1992 while Al Gore used it against the current president in 2000. But should experience be given such immense importance or is it perhaps, as some have suggested, overrated?

It turns out that a few of the more famous and popular presidents did not have much political experience at all. George Washington may have been a war hero prior to his presidency but he was not a politician. Someone of the likes of Thomas Jefferson would seem to have been much more qualified. But despite his lack of experience, Washington is generally considered to have been a highly competent and successful commander and chief. Furthermore, Abraham Lincoln, often considered one of the greatest presidents in American history, had less political experience than most U.S. Presidents before and after him.

And then on the other side, it is not too difficult to find past presidents who were quite experienced and yet were seemingly unsuccessful. The most significant example would perhaps be Richard Nixon. I do not think I need to develop this point more for it seems quite clear–from history and possibly common sense–that while political experience should be given some importance, it often tells us nothing about how a candidate will fair as president. Upon a more extensive review of history I also think it would become quite clear that other qualities play an equal or much larger role than experience in a successful presidency: qualities like integrity, intelligence, keen judgment, sternness, open-mindedness, and so on. Certainly some of these qualities can be learned, to an extant, from political experience but they are also things that seem embedded within one’s own character. Some people have them, some do not.

And as Time Magazine’s David Von Drehlet said earlier this year:

Experience…gets its value from the person who has it. In certain lives, a little goes a long way. Some people grow and ripen through years of government service; others spoil on the vine…

When Americans pass over the best-credentialed candidates because their heart or their gut leads them elsewhere, they are only reflecting a visceral understanding that the presidency involves tests unlike all others. They are, perhaps, seeking the ineffable quality the writer Katherine Anne Porter had in mind when she defined experience as “the truth that finally overtakes you.” An ideal President is both ruthless and compassionate, visionary and pragmatic, cunning and honest, patient and bold, combining the eloquence of a psalmist with the timing of a jungle cat. Not exactly the sort of data you can find on a résumé.

So while experience is likely never a bad thing, it is not the ultimate factor that separates the good presidents from the bad, the successful from the unsuccessful, as some would have us believe. If it were, we might as well pick out the most politically experienced individuals across the country and nominate them. There is obviously much more that goes into making a competent and successful president. And so long as the political parties keep up such a strong emphasis on a candidate’s experience–attacking those without it, praising those with it–many of the other qualities that are so important will remain overshadowed. And so long as this is the case, I think we are justified in claiming that experience is overrated, or at the very least, overemphasized. Is there a difference?

Further reading:

Time Magazine: Does Experience Matter in a President?

Presidential politics in America: is experience ‘overrated’?

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Categories: Philosophy Tags: , , ,
  1. 09/04/2008 at 2:49 am

    i actually agree with you on this. …i would elaborate, but i'm sick, and i don't feel like it.

  2. 09/05/2008 at 8:27 pm

    Is that a first?! ;)I hope you feel better.

  3. 09/05/2008 at 9:04 pm

    possibly …? well, you know, on the bigger things.

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