Should Our Leaders Be Amateurs?

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

September 21, 2003

Machine politicians are fond of recounting the story of an old political hack who had held office for many years. He was known for playing it too close to the edge where the law was concerned — but well-loved for delivering lots of goodies to his constituents. One year, he found himself in the middle of yet another scandal as Election Day approached. His managers groped for a new slogan in the final weeks of the campaign. Their inspiration: “Honesty is No Substitute for Experience.”

In this political fable, experience and the old hack prevail. But the truth is that Americans are opportunistic, fickle and capricious on the subject of experience in politics — which also means that we are practical and sensible. There are times when the voters are looking for a plumber, mechanic or doctor. The idea is to hire someone with a long track record who can fix problems and keep an eye on things. There are other moments when voters yearn for a preacher, an actor, a general — even a wrestler — who might lift their spirits by offering vision, or just by being different.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, who announced his presidential candidacy last week, hopes this will be one of those moments. If elective office is the only relevant “experience” for the White House, Clark is a sure loser. As Ron Fournier of the Associated Press pointed out, Clark never even ran for student council. But for many Americans, that might be one of his strongest qualifications.

Occasionally, voters get so mad at the reliable mechanic (especially when one can’t fix things) that they will turn to absolutely anybody. Which brings us to the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gov. Gray Davis and the California recall election, which will happen whenever the courts decide it should happen. Rarely has an electorate executed such a neck-snapping swing on the subject of experience.

When Democrat Davis was planning his 1998 campaign for governor, his advisers did an elaborate poll of what the state’s voters were looking for at that moment, when the economy was booming. Though reasonably content, voters wanted some change after 16 years of Republican rule. But above all, they wanted a seasoned manager who could keep things running smoothly. Davis was unexciting, but boy did he have experience — he was the incumbent lieutenant governor, former state controller, a former member of the state assembly and chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s. His official bio quotes the San Jose Mercury News, which called him “perhaps the best-trained governor-in-waiting California has ever produced.” He promised moderation and quiet competence.

Still, Davis was the underdog in the primary because he faced two opponents who were pouring millions of their family fortunes into advertising. And Davis was, well, boring. But two things happened: Davis’s opponents cut each other to shreds, and Davis’s aides found the perfect campaign slogan: “Experience Money Can’t Buy.”

Davis swept both the primary and the general election and, in his early years, delivered exactly what he promised, which included some education reform and a lot of moderation. As long as the economic boom continued, the voters, while never in love with Davis, liked him just fine.

Then came the energy crisis and the high-tech crash. That meant big deficits and lousy choices. Davis essentially offered voters the quiet life. He — and they — suddenly faced interesting times, a k a an economic and budgetary catastrophe. Republicans seized their opening. Goodbye, Mr. Fixit. Hello, Recall Campaign.

And Greetings to the Terminator, or “Arnold,” as his campaign posters call him. It’s said, correctly, that Arnold has no government experience beyond his time on a couple of physical fitness commissions — i.e., no government experience. It’s said, correctly, that Arnold has, so far, offered remarkably few specifics on what he’d do to get out of the state’s budget mess. He just says he won’t do difficult things like raise taxes. And since he has never, ever had to cast a hard vote on some budget choice, he is absolutely free to say anything — or, more importantly, practically nothing. Arnold has the kind of inexperience Davis wishes he now could buy.

Indeed, Arnold was perfectly happy to leave his chair empty at a debate last week and continues to play the Mr. Smith-Goes-to-Sacramento character. Instead of specifics, he offers strength and vision. “No one has painted a picture for the people and said, ‘Here is where we want to be,’” he told the directors of the state Chamber of Commerce earlier this month. “Everyone keeps talking about details, details, details,” he said. “Sacramento has warehouses of details. What they lack is leadership. What they need is backbone.”

Old gray Gray gets stuck with those wretched details. Who needs that experience?

In truth, experience has always been a slippery concept in American politics. For one thing, experience is no substitute for ability. When Republican Party bosses picked Sen. Warren G. Harding of Ohio as their presidential nominee on the 10th ballot in 1920, they were nominating an amiable cipher. “Harding had no qualification for being president except that he looked like one,” wrote historian William E. Leuchtenburg, even though Harding had held several public offices. Democrat William McAdoo memorably said that Harding’s speeches “leave the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea; sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork.”

But this was Harding’s greatest asset. Americans had just had plenty of ideas and experience from Woodrow Wilson, including World War I and its disappointing aftermath. Harding gave Americans little to be against, promised “normalcy,” and that was enough to win him a landslide.

In 1960, Richard M. Nixon based much of his campaign against John F. Kennedy on the experience issue. Both men had been elected to Congress in the same year, but Nixon was an exceptionally high-profile vice president and was seen as having lots of know-how in foreign policy. Kennedy had not made much of a mark on the Senate.

Nonetheless, Kennedy was a Democrat in what was still a New Deal country. He offered verve and drive and vision galore, even if the vision was a bit gauzy. Nixon tried to get past the party labels and glitz by being safe, sound — and, well, experienced. “Because Experience Counts” became one of his main slogans. The 1960 result was one of the closest in U.S. history — a virtual tie between experience and its competitor.

The big difference between 1960 and now is that the country has gone through one merciless anti-Washington campaign after another. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now Howard Dean — all, in one way or another, tried to turn Washington experience into a form of leprosy.

It’s enough to make a grown member of Congress cry — and protest.

Here’s Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the Democratic presidential candidate, who was first elected to Congress in 1976: “I’m not going to say what’s fashionable in our politics — that I’m a Washington outsider, that I couldn’t find the nation’s capital on a map, that I have no experience in the highest levels of government,” said the former House Democratic leader in announcing his presidential candidacy. “I do, and I think experience matters. It’s what our nation needs right now.”

Yet what, exactly, constitutes “experience”? You can think of certain candidates — among them Gephardt, Joseph Lieberman, John Kerry, Bob Graham, John Edwards, Howard Dean, Carol Mosley Braun and Dennis Kucinich — who say elective office is an asset. That would seem to leave out a general like Clark. Generals are used to having people follow orders, which could make matters dicey with, say, Congress and the voters. Clark has no professional experience with domestic issues, and acknowledged to reporters on Thursday that he had few specific policy ideas to offer at the moment. More experience might have prevented his embarrassing flip-flop last week — first he said he probably would have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war in Iraq, then he reversed himself the next day.

Yet if the presidency is in part about command, who better than a former general? George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Dwight D. Eisenhower were no slouches. How many senators have ever run things? In the wake of 9/11, which “experience” is more relevant — Clark’s in foreign policy and war, Howard Dean’s as a chief executive, albeit of a small state, or the extensive legislative experience of most of the rest of the field? (Senator Graham, former governor of Florida, can claim both executive and legislative experience, but it hasn’t helped him in the polls so far.)

The fact that “experience” is itself a mushy concept becomes even clearer if you consider this question: Was George W. Bush’s six years’ experience as a governor sufficient to prepare him for the presidency? Ask any dozen people and I bet you an old Nixon button that their answers break down almost entirely along party lines — proving that experience can have little to do with our view of “experience.”

That we are terribly ambivalent about experience is brought home by our vacillation between the Cincinnatus and Richard J. Daley models of leadership. Our hearts regularly go to the proud and independent person who has never been soiled by politics or compromise and comes to our rescue out of nowhere. This sort of character (Jesse Ventura played him on TV) appeals to our mistrust of politics and our desire to escape it.

The Daley model, as in the legendary Chicago mayor, plays to our heads. We want someone who knows the ropes, can get things done, and has been inside the system long enough to know what works and what doesn’t. We’re not inspired by such leaders, but we do like it when they clean the streets, fix health care or balance the budget.

Right now, I suspect that Americans are looking for a bit of both at the presidential level — an inspiring leader to deal with our insecurity and fears of terrorism, and an experienced leader who can fix the economy and, if it continues, the disarray in Iraq. Bush became the first kind of leader after 9/11. He faces the danger of looking like neither in 2004. As for the Democrats, their contest in the primaries will rest in part on a struggle over which kind of leader the party most needs — even as all the candidates try to claim that they are visionaries of an experienced and practical sort.

Meanwhile, back in California, Arnold continues to count on the virtues of inexperience. Will it work? Though Davis is still not liked very much, he has enjoyed a modest resurgence in the polls as voters consider whether the budget mess is, in fact, one of those tedious problems for which experience may be necessary after all. And Arnold has been hounded by a staunch conservative, Republican State Sen. Tom McClintock, who offers two things Arnold doesn’t have: a clear philosophical identity and — experience. McClintock loves to bait Schwarzenegger for his refusal to be specific. The conservative manages to combine vision — in his case of an austere state government — with “details, details, details.”

And thus the final irony: If McClintock and Schwarzenegger split the GOP vote and Davis still loses the recall, it’s possible that the next governor of California will be Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. He doesn’t claim to be a visionary, doesn’t offer much charisma, and presents a rather modest ideological profile — but he has lots and lots of experience in government. Bustamante had the experience to know when opportunity was knocking. And that could be enough. It would be a strange ending to a campaign that began as a revolt against experience.