Experience Matters

Erica Wanis
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Posted: Oct 29, 2015 12:01 AM

A recurring critique of President Obama has been his lack of experience. Barack Obama, part Progressive ideologue and part cerebral academic, has been moonlighting as the leader of the Free World and consequently ruining everything. He doesn't know how to build coalitions, he can't work effectively with Congress, he passes the buck and claims ignorance when major things go wrong. His actions in the realm of foreign policy betray a naïve understanding of geopolitics. Sarah Palin made hay of Obama's lack of experience when she compared her mayoral responsibilities to his role as a community organizer, and conservatives cheered and nodded in enthusiastic agreement.


The "lack of experience" critique is legitimate. President of the United States is not a job well suited to a "learn as you go" approach. The stakes are so incredibly high, the workload so immense, and the pace so breakneck that the office requires not only a quick mind and commanding leadership capacity, but an intimate understanding of the structure and functioning of American government. Few would argue that Barack Obama is an unintelligent person. He's clearly a very intelligent and accomplished man. But the Presidency requires a very particular and very broad skill set that few individuals possess. Barack Obama has an impressive resume, a charismatic personality, and in the minds of many, an inspiring vision for America. But many, critics and supporters alike, observe that he's been unsuccessful at translating those attributes into a successful Presidency.


It's odd then, that the Republican presidential candidate leading the polls is a man with virtually zero experience in governance of any kind. Like Barack Obama, Ben Carson is a man with an inspiring personal story and record of achievement in his field. To his political base he conveys a spirit of "hope and change." In short, he is a candidate long on emotional appeal and short on substance. His debate performances and interviews have revealed that he knows next to nothing about foreign affairs, and his domestic policy "solutions" consist mostly of rhetorical platitudes, like suggesting that the Biblical principle of tithing is a model for tax reform.

When pressed on his lack of experience, Dr. Carson and his campaign reply that a President Carson would surround himself with "good people" who could fill in the knowledge and experience gaps. This is standard operating procedure for elected officials, of course. No one knows everything and no one can do it all. The ability to effectively delegate responsibility and authority is critical to successful governance at any level. In order to delegate wisely, however, it is imperative that a good leader have a superior grasp of the big picture as well as the many moving parts at play. People loved to slam President Bush for appearing unintelligent on camera, but sources report that his intelligence was revealed by the kind of questions he asked his advisors. As Commander in Chief, you need to know enough to know how much you don't know, and what important questions need asking. If you think that a grand vision is sufficient, you end up leaving a lot of critical information out of the picture because you don't know enough to ask about it. Your command of the issues needs to be better than almost everyone in the room. A president who knows less about foreign affairs or tax policy than his undergraduate interns is not a president who will be able to lead the country effectively.


So when did Republicans lose their respect for experience? When did they morph into the party that values rhetoric over substance? Aren't conservatives supposed to be guided by principles of prudence and moderation? Aren't they supposed to respect longstanding institutions and established hierarchies? Why the current disdain for institutional knowledge and governmental experience in favor of novices, blowhards, and outsiders?

The explanation most often heard is the conservatives are fed up. They are sick of "politics as usual" and want a revolution in Washington. This is why they are electing representatives whose platforms are based almost exclusively on negative principles. "If I'm elected, I'll fight to repeal Obamacare. I will oppose raising the debt ceiling, I will eliminate whole departments of the federal government. I'll rip up the Iran nuclear agreement." The only problem with this approach is that not one of these things are practically achievable in the real world and in the real government. Like candidate Carson, these representatives lack true substance, and apparently, a true desire to govern. They are able to craft an image and a message that appeals to their base but they are completely ignorant of the political apparatus they they aspire to control. Slate's Seth Maxon
sums it up nicely:

"These congressmen argue that they're the only politicians in Washington brave enough to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and defund Planned Parenthood. But it’s not true – they can't do anything by themselves. It turns out bills require the approval of both the House and the president (the Senate, too!) to become law. . . . If they were braver . . . they would risk their jobs and tell the voters who support them that they will never defund anything as long as they literally need to work with Democrats. But that would require an interest in governing that goes beyond ideological grandstanding."

An interest in governing that goes beyond ideological grandstanding. What a fascinating concept. Conservatives find themselves in a political era in which is is virtual suicide for a Republican candidate to admit that some issues are actually pretty complicated (say, budgets, or health care, or immigration, or geopolitics), or to suggest that bipartisan compromise is a better method of governance than slash-and-burn tactics. David Brooks recently
discussed this issue in a column entitled "The Republicans Incompetence Caucus." In it, Brooks articulates the qualities necessary in a effective government leader, qualities that go far beyond a stated "belief in the Constitution" or other such vacuous claims to qualification.

"Politics," Brooks says, "is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests. . . . Running a government is a craft, like carpentry. . . ." Referencing philosopher Max Weber, Brooks concludes, "A politician needs warm passion to impel action but a cool sense of responsibility and proportion to make careful decisions in a complex landscape. If a politician lacks the quality of detachment – the ability to let the difficult facts of reality work their way into the mind – then, Weber argues, the politician ends up striving for the 'boastful but entirely empty gesture.' His work 'leads nowhere and is senseless.'"

Given the challenges facing America today, the last thing Republicans can afford is to put forth a candidate with nothing more to offer than empty gestures. Is it too much to hope for a candidate that appreciates the realities of the political moment and possesses the skill to navigate this landscape with an eye towards the betterment of the nation? Is it too much to hope for a Republican electorate that appreciates the need for this kind of leader and accepts the reality that incremental improvement is preferable to no improvement at all?

Given the current prevailing attitudes guiding the GOP, it seems that such hopes might be too much, indeed.