by Karl Kurtz
Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing, has an interesting guest column in Newsweek entitled "Are You Experienced: Why a U.S. Senator might not trump a state legislator" in which he argues that Sen. Barack Obama's experience as a state legislator counts for at least as much as Sen. John McCain's (or Sen. Hillary Clinton's) tenure in the Senate. His point is that state legislators get much more in-depth policy experience than U.S. senators who "are, virtually by the nature of the job, gadflies", because the state lawmakers have to become experts and negotiators themselves rather than relying on staff to do it for them.
Rather than suggesting that this state legislative experience is a reason to support Obama over McCain (or vice versa), Ehrenhalt concludes 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...."
This article resonated with me not only because of my institutional bias toward the value of state legislatures but also because I have often wondered during this campaign about the claims and counter-claims of "experience" among Senators McCain, Clinton and Obama. But I want to add a couple of thoughts that elaborate on Ehrenhalt's conclusion about the complexity of determining what constitutes good experience.
First, I think of an article that Rutgers University Professor Alan Rosenthal wrote a decade ago, "From Gavel to Gown" (State Government News 40, October 1997, pp. 12-13--sorry, no online version available) in which he argued that legislative leaders make good university presidents. He cited examples of former legislators William Bulger (University of Massachusetts), David Frohnmayer (University of Oregon), Sandy d'Alemberte (Florida State University), and Betty Castor (University of Southern Florida) who at that time were successful university presidents. But Rosenthal's point is that it is the legislative leadership experience of setting agendas, corralling multiple, competing, independent actors and negotiating differences that counts, not just service in the legislature.
When I called his attention to Ehrenhalt's column this morning, Rosenthal wrote back, "While I think that experience as a legislative leader is important, experience as a rank-and-file member is much less so. ...I would not encourage state legislators to run for the presidency, at least until they have had leadership experience." In this leadership category, all three of the U.S. Senators who have played out the experience argument in the last few months are lacking.
Second, in March of this year, State Legislatures magazine ran an excerpt of a new book on a legendary Texas lieutenant governor entitled, "Bob Bullock: Experience Counts." In this segment of the book, the authors, Dave McNeely and Jim Henderson, recount Lt. Gov. Bullock's bipartisan relationship with George W. Bush when he was governor and then-House Speaker Pete Laney. They point out that the spirit of cooperation, camaraderie and bipartisanship between the governor and the legislature that worked so well in Austin with 181 legislators and a governor working in the same building didn't work as well for Pres. Bush when he got to Washington where there is much more entrenched partisanship among 535 members of Congress and "a visit to a senator’s office required a two-mile drive in a motorcade with enough manpower to invade Cuba." At least by implication, their point is that a little more Washington experience (other than being the son of a president) might have served Pres. Bush well.
All of this leads me to agree with Alan Ehrenhalt's last thought in this intriguing article: "...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."
For other reflections on this topic in The Thicket, see "Obama Candidacy Brings State Legislatures into Presidential Spotlight," and "Fixing a Deficit in State Legislative Experience in the Presidency".
[Illustration credit: www.governing.com]