Does Experience Matter?


It seems like the question of experience has emerged in virtually every presidential campaign in recent memory.   And this year it is especially important.

But what does that really mean – to have the experience to be president?  What’s the criteria?  When do you know someone has enough?  And what is more important, political experience, executive experience, or legislative experience?  Diplomatic experience or military experience?  How about business experience? 

Or is it judgment and adherence to principle that matter most?

Examining the historical record I find that there is no correlation between so-called “experience” and a successful presidency. 

Presidents with lots of experience have been successful, while those with little experience have also been successful.  But there has also been presidents with a lifetime of experience who failed and those with little experience who also failed.

And even the question of success and failure is open for debate, as one administration might be successful to some but a failure to others. 

So let us take a peek at a few examples from presidential history.

James Monroe, a protégé of Mr. Jefferson, had one of the most impressive political resumes of any American statesman.  Monroe served in the Virginia State House, the Continental Congress, as a delegate to the Virginia Ratifying Convention that debated the U.S. Constitution, as both a U.S. Senator and Governor of Virginia, as ambassador to England, France, and Spain, and finally as James Madison’s secretary of state, an office, at that time, seen as a stepping stone to the presidency. 

Monroe’s administration was largely successful, even though he tends to get lost in the shuffle of the Virginia Dynasty.  He had to preside over the nation after the costly war with Great Britain, as well as manage the nation’s economy after the onset of the Panic of 1819.  He won re-election in 1820 despite the depression, receiving all but one electoral vote.  Monroe was a strict constructionist, who vetoed the Cumberland Road Bill because he said the Constitution did not grant Congress the power to make such an appropriation.  He signed the Missouri Compromise Bill, which cooled the sectional controversy over slavery for 30 years.  In foreign affairs, he gave us the Monroe Doctrine, one of the great foreign policy papers in American history, completely in line with our traditional non-interventionist position.  Historians have ranked him as high as eighth in presidential polls.

James Buchanan also had a distinguished political resume, as impressive as any American president.  He served in the Pennsylvania state legislature, the U.S. House for ten years, where he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, the U.S. Senate for two terms, chairing the Committee on Foreign Affairs, served as James K. Polk’s secretary of state, and was also ambassador to both Russia and Great Britain.  He  was even offered an appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court but turned it down.  But with all that experience, and prestige, his presidency was a disaster, mainly due to his judgment or lack thereof. 

With the Supreme Court poised to rule on the Dred Scott case soon after his inauguration on March 4, 1857, Buchanan communicated, unethically, with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, urging him to make a definitive ruling that would end the fight over slavery in the territories.  Rather than handing down a simple ruling that Dred Scott had no standing to sue in federal court, and leaving it at that, Taney, whether he followed the new president’s prodding or not, handed down a decision that caused the sectional crisis to burn red hot.  And with the Southern States leaving the Union one by one after the election of 1860, Buchanan did absolutely nothing, one way or the other.  He did not even evacuate Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, instead leaving that thorny issue for Lincoln, a situation that led to war rather than peaceful negotiations.  In short, Buchanan fiddled while Rome burned and historians have hammered him for it.

By contrast, Buchanan’s successor, Abraham Lincoln, who most Americans as well as academic historians place in the top spot, had almost no experience at all.  He served a few terms in the Illinois state legislature and one term in the U.S. House, which he himself said was a “flat failure.”  But the conventional historical wisdom is that Lincoln, because he preserved the Union and, supposedly, freed the slaves, was a great success.  I would argue, however, that Lincoln essentially shredded the Constitution to accomplish what he did and, because of that, he does not deserve such a high place in American presidential history.  The damage done to our federal republic is still with us today. 

But looking at it from the standpoint that he accomplished what he set out to do, even implementing the old Whig, now Republican, economic program of high tariffs, centralized banking, and federal-funded internal improvements and subsidies to big business, then he can be regarded as successful, to at least a portion of the country.  Yet if you asked most Americans in 1860 if they knew of Abraham Lincoln, the vast majority, because of his lack of experience, would not have had a clue.

Jimmy Carter also had very little experience and his presidency was the biggest failure of all.  Despite attending the U.S. Naval Academy and serving his country in uniform, Carter, when it came to matters of national security, proved pathetically weak and indecisive.  When radical Islamic thugs in Tehran seized the U.S. embassy, after Carter’s bungling led to the overthrow of the America-friendly Shah, the president did nothing but preside over his own embarrassment for 444 days, while citizens of the United States were held against their will by a group of religious thugs.  Even a military rescue attempt ended in disastrous failure.

Carter’s political experience consisted of a single term in the Georgia state senate and one term as governor but despite his service in Georgia, his domestic record is just as derisory as foreign affairs.  Carter proved unable to deal with crippling economic conditions that included a serious energy shortage.  The president followed liberals in Congress nearly over the cliff, as the nation faced inflation, unemployment, and interest rates all in double-digits.  The situation was so bad that Ted Kennedy challenged Carter for the party nomination in 1980.  Kennedy lost but Carter was crushed by Ronald Reagan in the fall.

Barack Obama’s meteoric rise has been nothing short of spectacular but this has led to questions about his experience to hold the office of president of the United States.  This is a major weak point his campaign must address.  But instead of puffing Obama up, they have, instead, engaged in a campaign to tear McCain’s vast experience down.

Wesley Clark recently launched a full frontal assault on national television against McCain.  “He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn’t held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded — that wasn’t a wartime squadron.  In the matters of national security policy making, it’s a matter of understanding risk,  It’s a matter of gauging your opponents and it’s a matter of being held accountable.  John McCain’s never done any of that in his official positions.” 

And Barack Obama has?  Tangling with McCain on experience is not a wise strategy for the Obama campaign.  Though I find no correlation, many Americans do.

But instead of focusing on experience, voters should examine the record of every presidential candidate – any votes they have cast in legislative bodies as well as prior policy initiatives and speeches.  Voters can also determine judgment.  Simply look at the decisions he has made, even during the campaign.  But at the end of the day we are not going to know what kind of president any candidate might be until he finally takes office.

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