21 December 2007

Is Political Experience Necessary?

I found this article while reading the Politico site and I think it is a good piece that brings to light good points.

Before wading into the morass of conflicting claims about the role of senatorial experience as preparation for the responsibilities of the Oval Office it would be prudent to ask just what the president does.

This seems like a question that common sense could easily answer, but it is not.

The modern presidency operates at many complex levels — strategic, political, constitutional and symbolic, and it does so in domestic and international circumstances permeated by division and threat.

So, before we can say if senatorial experience counts, we must first answer the question of where it is most important that it do so.

The twin answers to that question are judgment and leadership. We rely on the president to see the problems the country faces clearly, understand their implications and put them into the proper framework for analysis. That is judgment.

We also expect a president to be able to mobilize others in pursuit of a fitting solution, help orchestrate and channel those efforts, and consolidate any success into lasting accomplishments. That is political leadership.

This short list of seemingly straightforward presidential tasks belies their complexity and difficulty.

Good judgment and effective leadership are often a byproduct of learning from experience, both successful and otherwise, that is relevant.

So the first question we must ask of a presidential candidate’s experience is whether it is relevant to making the complex, tough, and often controversial trade-offs that often face a president and whether that experience includes translating those judgments into successful policy solutions.

Regrettably for candidates who tout their senatorial careers, this would seem to preclude giving much weight to their legislative experience.

The problem is not that these senatorial experienced candidates are not smart or capable.

It is that while the Senate may well be an incubator for presidential ambitions, but it is not a good training ground for presidential responsibilities.

Consider the differences. A senator is one of a hundred. The president is singular and unique. A senator casts a vote. The president makes decisions.

A senator’s vote is one of many; the president's decisions are where the buck stops. Senators have few responsibilities for national leadership and most rarely exercise their limited and narrower opportunities for issue leadership.

The president’s national and worldwide leadership is required, and often demanded on a daily basis. A senator may, over the course of his or her career, become a specialist in a few subjects.

The president is expected to be well-versed in many.

A senator doesn’t govern, run an administration or have responsibility for any more than his or her own office staff.

A president is responsible for all the agencies of the federal government, many of them engaged in complex and difficult policy decisions — these, too, ultimately are the president’s responsibility.

And finally, senators do not personally have to make life-or-death decisions regarding the fate of this country.

Senators have a strictly advisory position, cushioned from command responsibility by layers of words and the ability to reinterpret what they really meant when they voted for or against a piece of legislation. They are therefore insulated from the intense emotional and political burdens of having to stand alone before the country and the world on the basis of their judgments.

One obvious response to these facts is to cite Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

Lincoln is rated one of our great presidents and had only one term in the House of Representatives before he won the presidency in 1860.

Kennedy found his short legislative life in Congress boring but is fondly remembered as smart, charming and, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, masterful.

The brief response to those examples is that the presidency of 2008 requires a great deal more of its occupant than the office did in 1860. Lincoln’s justified reputation is based on one absolutely crucial judgment that he successfully made: to preserve the union.

No amount of experience of whatever kind can adequately prepare a president for those national life-or-death decisions.

As for Kennedy, his good judgment and leadership during the Cuban Missile Crisis was preceded by his much poorer judgment and presidential leadership at the Bay of Pigs.

In this case, good judgment did come from experience — that of learning from his mistakes.

There is no inherent reason why a senator cannot make a good president in spite of his lack of relevant experience.

However, the nature of senatorial life ordinarily precludes us from learning anything much about the soundness of a senator's judgment in the types of complex decisions that face a president every day or in his ability to provide the country with leadership that only a president can bring to bear on the issues that face us.

We take a risk in selecting any person for the presidency, but experience that we can judge — and that is relevant to what the president actually does — helps us to manage those risks.

If Clinton, Biden, McCain, Chris Dodd, Barack Obama or Fred Thompson want to convince us that they belong in the presidency, they will have to make arguments on grounds other than their senatorial experience.

Stanley Renshon is a professor of political science at the City University of New York and a certified psychoanalyst.

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