The Campaign Debate on Qualifications and Experience
On Friday, President Bill Clinton was on Charlie Rose's show (PBS) and was asked about his views on why he believes Sen. Hillary Clinton is the best candidate for President. You can view portions of his responses here and the discussion veered into questions on qualifications and experience. President Clinton was walking a tightrope. He didn't want to brand any of the Democrats as being unqualified or inexperienced or unelectable in case Sen. Clinton ended up not being the eventual nominee, because, like everyone else he wants to see a Democratic President in 2009. However, he tried to say why she was better than the others, especially Sen. Obama, without making them seem like they are all unfit to be President (I disagree with TPM Election Central's take on the interview - as Clinton said during the interview, he was certain his statements would be reported out of context). Considering I wrote at length on why I'm supporting Sen. Clinton, let me add some more comments on this important topic.
Every one of the Democratic candidates running for President is qualified to be President when you compare them to the Republicans running for President. However, just because they are all qualified to be President, it does not mean that every one of them is equally qualified to be President. To use an illustrative example, every one in the United States is qualified to be a blogger, but that does not mean everyone is equally qualified - some are better than others. The real question is: "Who is Best Qualified to be the President of the United States?" My answer to this question is here.
Every one of the Democratic candidates running for President has some experience that will help them in a Presidential role. However, just because everyone has some experience, that doesn't mean they all have the same breadth and depth of experience that is required to make them a successful President. Some are clearly more experienced than others. Sen. Obama's claim to fame on the matter of experience is his stated opposition to the 2002 Iraq war resolution. He has implied that his early opposition shows he is smarter and therefore effectively more experienced than Sen. Clinton and Sen. Edwards. This is unfortunately an oversimplified view of reality. He gets credit for being right, but so do I since I was also opposed to the Iraq invasion - that doesn't mean I am equally experienced to be President! In fact, maybe a third of the country was against the Iraq invasion. I'd be laughed out of here if I therefore claimed that all of those people are smart enough and experienced enough to be President. A small number of them are - but most are not.
Let us develop this argument a bit. To his enormous credit, Rep. Dennis Kucinich has probably been more prescient and right about the war and several other issues in comparison to many of the other Democrats running for President. Per Sen. Obama's argument, this would mean that all of us, including Sen. Obama, should vote for Rep. Kucinich. However, I won't make this argument* because the experience argument presented by Sen. Obama is highly misleading. Experience is not just about voting the right way. If it is, then every one in Congress who votes "correctly" according to their base, would automatically be considered experienced enough to be a successful President. This is not true in the real world and that's because of a simple reason.
The role of the President of the United States is fundamentally different from the role of a legislator in the Senate or House. The President doesn't pass legislation - he or she tries to influence legislation and executes the laws of the land (unless you are George Bush in which case you do whatever you feel like because it feels good). The job of a President - an executive responsible for upholding the Constitution and managing the whole country - is more demanding and more stressful than the job of a legislator - a member of Congress - who is responsible for making laws in accordance with the Constitution and representing a portion of the country. A President can easily do well as a member of Congress but not every member of Congress would do well as a President. In Congress, a person can focus on one or two key areas and let experienced colleagues help guide his/her vote in other areas. This is not as challenging as having the role of a President where you need to understand issues across every area that Congress sends you legislation on, and more. It takes a combination of significant breadth and depth of knowledge across a spectrum of topics that impact the whole country if you want to be President. It also requires enormous strength to face up to the minute-by-minute scrutiny of every word and every action of yours, and the staying power to deal patiently but strongly with people who seek to obstruct your vision and find ways to convince these people to change their positions. It takes all this and much much more. Another way to think about this is to realize that when a President fails, it is the President - a single person - who is usually held accountable. When Congress fails, the blame is usually assigned to Congress - not to a single individual (except in those limited number of cases where one or two votes make a huge difference).
Sen. Clinton, who was part of a White House for 8 years (not to mention her years as First Lady of Arkansas) has faced almost unprecedented levels of individual scrutiny. She emerged unscathed and stronger from one of the most expensive, intrusive, and out-of-control investigations of a President's and First Lady's personal and political life in American history - an investigation conducted by an unchecked, unbalanced, ultra-right-wing, panty-sniffing, Independent Prosecutor (Kenneth Starr) who was the darling of the right-wing and the mainstream media (including the New York Times and the Washington Post). She has faced the prospect of individual blame much more than any Democrat currently running for President. Partly due to her domestic and foreign policy experience in the White House (not to mention her Senate experience), she has a greater depth and breadth of policy knowledge than the other Democrats running for President. Likewise, she also unmistakeably understands what it takes for a President to be successful in getting legislation through Congress and what it takes to run the government successfully. In short, she will beat her competition by a mile on the topic of Presidential experience - which is a combination of many of the above attributes. Does that mean she's perfect and will not make any mistakes? Absolutely not! We have to be fair to her and yet hold her accountable if she becomes President, but even the greatest Presidents have made horrible mistakes. For example, I often see progressives effusively praising Franklin Delano Roosevelt and labeling Sen. Clinton's record as horrendous in comparison to what FDR did (see my post: How Hillary Clinton, Unlike FDR, Single-Handedly Destroyed America). Well, FDR shredded the First Amendment through his Office of Censorship during WWII. He also gutted the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the Constitution through his mass internment of Japanese Americans without just cause or due process. I could go on and on, but I think the point is clear. If FDR ran for President today with that record, many people would have attacked him as being worse than Bush. Yet, FDR also accomplished astonishingly good things for the country that Bush wouldn't even do in a dream and is therefore considered a progressive hero.
I've discussed in previous posts why looking solely at Sen. Obama's opposition to the Iraq war in 2002 - when he was not in the U.S. Senate - provides a very misleading picture of how he has behaved and will behave as a national politician. Indeed, his virtual lock-step voting with Senator Clinton on Iraq and his triangulation on his anti-war views when he was running for the U.S. Senate reveal that it is quite possible that as a Senator he might have voted in favor of the resolution back in 2002, especially if he had Presidential ambitions. If anything, Sen. Obama's acceptance of many experts from the 1990s Clinton team into his fold is as much a testament that he believes the Clintons knew what they were doing, as it is a reflection that he is in the process of learning how they did it. Sen. Clinton already knows what they did in the 1990s and how they did it: that's why she figuratively says been there, done that! That's why you keep seeing her repeatedly making the "ready on day one" argument. Yes, it's political spin but it also happens to be mostly true in this case.
*FOOTNOTE: In saying that, I am not in any way claiming that Rep. Kucinich's entire pitch for his candidacy is based solely on his voting record. It is not. My point is that a legislator's voting record alone says little about that person's capability to do the job of a President.