The 2016 Campaign: Learning From Experience

Experience — or the lack of it — has emerged as one of the first issues in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio confirmed his availability for the highest office in the land on Sunday, answering “I do” to the question of whether he considers himself ready for the job. The 42-year-old (still young enough to volunteer that he’ll be 43 this month) freshman senator thus joined two other relatively inexperienced Republican presidential hopefuls: Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, also senatorial first-termers.

Rubio quickly pointed out that he has 14 years of experience in government to counter-balance his youth. Cruz also held various state and federal posts before being elected to the Senate, although Paul’s previous occupation of ophthalmologist involved few executive or legislative duties.

Common sense tells us that experience should be an important qualification. It’s a standard item on a job applicant’s resume; if it’s expected of someone applying for dog catcher, why shouldn’t it be the same for president?

Of course, one major difference is that there really is no prior experience that can prepare anyone for the awesome powers and responsibilities of the presidency. As president-elect John Kennedy told Robert McNamara, who pleaded that he lacked the qualifications to be secretary of defense, “I know of no school for presidents, either.”

Kennedy himself is a case in point. Despite his Republican rival, then-Vice President Richard Nixon, hammering away at his inexperience versus his own years of service in high office, the voters preferred Kennedy.

But in the opinion of some historians, it was Kennedy’s lack of executive experience that nearly caused him and the nation to pay a price when he early on stumbled into the Cuban invasion fiasco, and soon after was subjected to Nikita Krushchev’s world-class bullying in Vienna and the missile crisis. In the end, Kennedy showed his grit, facing down the Russians in Cuba.

On the other hand, all of Nixon’s experience when he finally became president did not prevent him from ultimately having to resign in disgrace, branded as a liar and a crook.

Barack Obama defeated more experienced rivals — first Hillary Clinton, then Mitt Romney — to become president. But there was little in his background to prepare him for the intractable Washington partisanship that has made governance so painful. In other ways, too, Obama has had to learn on the job. As he ruefully admitted of his first-term program to get America back to work with “shovel-ready jobs,” he discovered “there’s no such thing as ‘shovel-ready jobs.’”

However, Rubio stressed a different qualification. “Most importantly, I think a president has to have a clear vision of where the country needs to go and clear ideas about how to get it there.”

That sounds good, though as we have learned from experience it takes political know-how to convert vision into reality. John Kennedy had fine ideas about civil rights; but it wasn’t until Lyndon Johnson became president and applied his extraordinary skill and experience to the business of getting legislation passed that the vision became reality.

On the other hand, American history has known some spectacularly successful presidents who lacked governmental experience.

Andrew Jackson was a military hero, but he had a limited education, had never been abroad and had little experience in government. He was, in the view of Thomas Jefferson, the most unfit man imaginable for the office of the presidency.

But, as a Jackson campaign document said, “In the selection of the Chief Magistrate of this Union, it is not necessary that we should look exclusively to mental qualification … It is strength of character; a perseverance and steadiness of purpose … that makes the distinguished man.”

Lincoln was a virtual nonentity from the wilds of Illinois compared to the leading contenders for the Republican Party nomination in 1860. But when the Seward and Chase candidacies cancelled each other out at the convention, Lincoln’s wily campaign manager was able to take advantage of the stalemate to secure him the nomination. In the end, it was Lincoln’s personal qualities that held the country together through the Civil War and earned him a place in history.

In 2016, the young Republicans may confront the issue of experience head-on in the person of Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

Vice President Biden recently touted himself on a news program as “uniquely qualified” to be president. “I think my knowledge of foreign policy, my engagement of world leaders, my experience, uniquely positions me to follow through on the agenda Barack and I have of bringing world peace that is real and substantive,” Biden said.

And a new Gallup poll shows that voters consider Clinton’s experience as a former secretary of state to be a leading
qualification for her bid to be president. Clinton, whose memorable red phone ringing at 3 in the morning ad suggesting that a novice like Obama could not be trusted to answer it, can be trusted to raise the issue of experience again in 2016.

But, as we have seen, there are ways to deflect the experience issue. Obama’s campaign manager then, David Plouffe,
dismissed the ad, saying, “Senator Clinton had her red phone moment. She had it in 2002. It was on the Iraq war — she and John McCain and George Bush all gave the wrong answer.”

In the final analysis, all of these factors must be taken into account: experience, vision, character. The next presidential election is still a long way off — time enough, we hope, to evaluate the candidates and their respective claims to the highest office in the land.