Thursday, February 23, 2012

Political Experience: Too Much of a Good Thing?

What makes a good president?

Leadership. Confidence. Eloquent communication. Organizational skill. Clear Vision.  Ability to compromise. Commitment to Integrity. Political experience...

Hold the phone there...

As counter-intuitive as it may sound, experience may actually be a liability to a presidential candidate. A recent New York Times article exposes how this is exemplified in Rick Santorum's campaign for the Republican nomination. Michael Shear reports that while Santorum has attempted to run on the basis of his 16-year Congressional career, his congressional track-record is now being used to portray him as an inconsistent “a creature of insider politics” who does not really uphold conservative values.

Shear neatly points out that this sort of mudslinging is very common when congresspersons run for office. While it would seem logical that legislators would want to run on their congressional record, proving their experience and know-how, it also opens them up to an intense amount of criticism. As Shear notes:

For every vote that becomes an effective campaign talking point, there is another that threatens to lead a candidate into explanations requiring awkward, process-laden Senate-speak. And those votes often cast a spotlight on the messy compromises and partisan accommodations that are a regular but despised part of the legislative process in Washington.

One sees, then, that there is a catch-22 to running for presidential office. One needs experience, of course, to run for such an essential position. However, the more experience one has in the spotlight of our nation's Congress, the more likely one is to have exposed oneself to liability. That liability could be a compromise on health care, supporting an issue which earned political enemies, or voting for a bill that contained a substance-less earmark (remember that Bridge to Nowhere?), but, regardless, it could cost just enough votes to lose the election.

Shear mentions that Obama, who ran after serving just two years in the Senate, may have directly benefited from this principle. This is fascinating given that one of the big arguments against Obama in the 2008 election was his inexperience. I guess he laughed his way to the White House on that one...

This insight has left me with a two sets of questions. First, what makes an “electable” candidate? Are state elected officials and legislators more likely to be elected than someone with national experience? Is obscurity a benefit? Does it make more sense for parties to start catering to a more inexperienced candidate pool? What are the implications of sending the nation's Doogie Howsers into the White House?

Secondly, what the heck do people think goes on in national politics? Why is experience seen as something untrustworthy? Unfortunately, many Americans simply do not understand the legislative process or what their legislators do. And this ignorance is to the benefit of politicians, who can use it to make weak arguments against their opponents and for themselves, and mass media, who can drum up a good profitable controversy over routine congressional procedures.

To be fair, it is important that an elected official's inconsistency and political pandering be exposed. However, equally important is the ability to discern mudslinging from knowledge of the every-day compromises that congresspersons must make to effect change. If anything, citizens should be angry not at inconsistency, but an electoral process and legislative environment which incentives officials into making backroom deals and compromising political decisions. It is definitely time to examine these systems if we are living in a time when “experience” is considered a bad thing.


  1. Ms. Carlson, I am appalled by any assertion that experience may offer benefits to the political realm in any real or measurable way. We need politicians brave enough to shun traditional beltway politicking and embrace a more unorthodox method of "winging it."
    Such is the reason that come November, I shall cast my ballot for Barack H. Obama. I suggest you do the same.

  2. Oliver, I thought you'd be happy that I mentioned Santorum in a blog post and didn't even criticize! (although I'm guessing you're a Romney fella?)