Experience: Does Obama Trump McCain?

We are in the opening days of a presidential campaign that pits youth against age, the virtues of experience against the freshness and riskiness of the new arrival.

I'm not here to refute all of that: John McCain is 25 years older than Barack Obama, and he always will be. But here's something I bet you didn't know: If Obama becomes president, he will have spent more time serving as a state legislator (eight years) than anyone who has occupied the White House since Abraham Lincoln.

You're thinking that's kind of irrelevant. John McCain has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 1986; do I really mean to suggest that Obama's eight years in the Illinois Senate (not the most august deliberative body, as anyone who has seen it will attest) provide the same preparation for the presidency? Well, not exactly. But looking back on quite a few years covering Congress, and an almost equal number of years following legislatures, I'm drawn to some slightly curmudgeonly comments about what it is that U.S. senators do, and what it is that state legislators do.

Twenty-first century U.S. senators are, virtually by the nature of the job, gadflies. They flit from one issue to another, generally developing little expertise on any of them; devote a large portion of their day to press conferences and other publicity opportunities; follow a daily schedule printed on a 3x5 card that a member of their staff has prepared; depend even more heavily on staff for detailed and time-consuming legislative negotiation that they are too busy to attend; and develop few close relationships with colleagues, nearly all of whom are as busy as they are. There are exceptions, of course—senators who beat the odds and develop an encyclopedic knowledge of topics that interest them—but they are the minority. I don't doubt McCain's instinct for global strategy, but a few months ago, when he had to be corrected on his statement that Iran was training Al Qaeda operatives, I wasn't surprised at all. I'm surprised this doesn't happen to senators more often.

By contrast, what do state legislators do? At their worst, they are doggedly parochial, people who tend first and foremost to the interests of a relatively small constituency. At their best, they keep all the state's significant issues in mind; it is possible to do that in a state legislature in a way that is not possible in Washington. During the years that Obama served in Springfield, 1997-2005, he was forced to wrestle with the minutiae of health-care policy, utility deregulation, transportation funding, school aid, and a host of other issues that are vitally important to America's coming years, but that U.S. senators are usually able to dispose of with a quick once-over. State legislators have to do this largely on their own, without ubiquitous staff guidance, because staffing is not lavish even in the more professional state capitols. They enter into day-to-day bargaining relationships over the details of legislation with colleagues of both parties; there is no one else to do it for them. At the end of the session, they are likely to know the strengths and quirks of nearly everyone who serves in their chamber.

And perhaps most important, there is simply more personal contact across the aisle than there is in Congress. Legislatures have grown more partisan in the past decade, as all of American politics has. But in most state capitols, the wall of partisan separation is nowhere near as high as it is in Washington. When Obama was in the Illinois Senate, he was obligated to sit down in a small room day after day with his Republican counterparts and work out the details of legislation expanding health-care coverage and revising campaign-finance law. He played in a regular poker game in which party and ideology were utterly irrelevant. Maybe there are still poker games in the U.S. Senate. I haven't heard of one lately.

The last thing I want to do is idealize state legislatures. Their members, most of whom have private jobs, are prone to conflicts of interest worse than those that occur in Washington. They are frequently easy for lobbyists to manipulate. And on the whole, I think it is fair to say, the ones who remain at their desks term after term may not be quite as bright as the ones who make it further up the ladder to Congress. But for a smart, curious and hard-working young legislator—for a Barack Obama in the Illinois Senate-can we be so sure that the skill set picked up over eight years in a state Capitol is inferior as presidential preparation to two decades in the pompous, cordoned-off environment of the U.S. Senate? I seriously doubt it.

Assertions about experience were misleading when they were employed in the Democratic primaries by Hillary Clinton. She had been a legislator—a U.S. Senator—for eight years. Obama had been one, albeit at a different level of government for a time—for 12 years. The only way her claim of superior preparation could be taken seriously was to consider her two terms as First Lady to be relevant professional training. That may be true, but it is a claim no one else has ever promulgated in the history of American politics. Does having been First Lady make you better prepared to give the right answer when the phone rings in the dead of night? Maybe it does. I'm not saying no; I'm saying I don't know, and nobody else does either.

As for the fall campaign, I am not urging anyone to vote for Obama, or against McCain, on the issue of experience. What I am suggesting is that experience itself is a slippery commodity to measure—that there is no easy way to guess what sort of political career is ideal for a president—and that we would all be better off just listening to what the candidates say and how they say it, and spending a little time looking into what sort of people they are.