The Fallacy of the Experience Argument

I am probably not the only one shaking their head over the arguments flying around in the 2008 presidential race. Each candidate has a host of reason on why I should prefer him or her to the other Joe. One of the arguments being bandied about by the Clinton campaign in particular is “the experience argument.” It asserts that because Hillary Clinton was First Lady for eight years and also spent four more years in the Senate than her rival Senator Barack Obama that she is more qualified to be president than he is. She repeatedly says that because of her experience she will be ready on day one to assume the complex job of the presidency. Therefore, we should vote for her.

Yeah, as if most of us vote using the left side of our brain. Most of us trust our guts when it comes to something as important as deciding who will be our next president. We may listen to the candidate’s arguments but what we are really tuning into is their body language, tone of voice, inflection and their ability to connect with people. Supposedly, more than eighty percent of communication is nonverbal. Perhaps some of us are studying a candidate’s credentials and position papers and are making our choices based on their stands on the issues. Most of us do not have that kind of time. I would argue this by itself is a lousy way to choose a president.

Granted that in many professions, experience is very valuable. I prefer mechanics with lots of experience to those just out of trade school. On the other hand, education is important too. A recently certified board-practicing physician is probably better equipped to understand the nuances of an advanced medical condition than a sixty-year-old doctor is. For most jobs, the value of experience crests after a couple years. I am an example. For much of my career I was a computer programmer. At some point, I realized I had hit a glass ceiling. I could keep learning new higher-level languages, but that merely kept me employed. It was not a good reason to prefer me as a programmer to someone half my age earning half my salary. I eventually leveraged my experience to become a technical leader. Now I am an IT manager. I have not had to write code to earn any part of my living for at least six years. This is just as well. It is likely that otherwise my lifestyle would be more moderate.

Yes, I do want a president with some relevant political experience, but I also recognize that it is not the deciding factor. If I were to vote solely on a candidate’s experience, I would be voting for Bill Richardson. Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden each have far more political experience than Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama combined. Yet they are at the back of the presidential candidate pack.

Clearly, voters are looking for something beyond just experience, which is why Hillary Clinton’s experience argument feels rather weak. While her husband was president, except for leading the health care task force (an activity that turned into a fiasco) she had no official duties. As for her time in the Senate, she is a fast learner as senators go, but she has yet to complete her second term. Her senate job is the only political office she has ever held.

Formal education is also of limited value to a politician. Obviously, it is better not to be an ignoramus. Having a master’s degree in a relevant field like public policy, while helpful, is also not the determining factor. The most crucial skill a president needs is the ability to persuade people. This is developed by having razor sharp people skills, a natural extroversion and sufficient personality so that you will be both heard and respected. Bill Clinton was often referred to by his enemies as Slick Willie. This was actually a complement because an effective president has to be slick. Effective presidents know that utilizing the veto pen is one of the worst ways to be effective. It is far better to have that certain something that turns your enemies, if not into your friends, then into temporarily allies. If a president is not continuously greasing the wheels of government, he is not doing his job.

This ability cannot be learned from a book. It is either something you have or do not have. It is not something you pick up as president; you acquired this is a skill long before you ran for the presidency. This is why presidents of the United States were often first class presidents. An effective president is a master persuader. The best presidents though do not persuade simply to have their own way. They persuade to move the country in a direction that is in the best long-term interests of the American people.

What is this form of persuasion called? It is called leadership. Leadership that demonstrates sound seasoned judgment, not experience, is the most crucial criterion for the presidency. It is why Hillary Clinton’s argument runs weak. Her husband was the lowest paid governor in the United States when he became president. He had zero foreign policy experience. While many disliked him as president, by the time he left office the American people overall felt otherwise. In spite of his impeachment, he left office with near record high approval ratings. This is because Bill Clinton, for all his faults, worked for the American people. It was borne out in our higher standard of living and the progressive government he engendered.

It is particularly curious that Bill Clinton is barnstorming Iowa using the hollow argument of his wife’s experience as a crucial reason to vote for her. He knows better. Perhaps he uses the experience argument because he knows her leadership credentials are too thin. If this is the best hand his wife can play before the caucuses on Thursday, she is likely to be playing a losing hand.

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