Why "Experience" Matters

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Sep 14, 2008 1:23 PM
Sarah Palin has been a game changer.  But what her selection as the GOP veep nominee has already shown is the benefit of experience and flexibility in presidential politics.

Not, of course, the kind of "experience" that the Obama campaign was ready to deride as "more of the same."  Some GOP party insiders were mildly taken aback by the Palin pick, given that it would deprive John McCain of the supposed "experience" edge over a first term senator who's spent a grand total of around 143 days actually doing his job.  But they were wrong.

What McCain was smart and tough enough to see is that the "experience" issue isn't moving voters -- the fact that Hillary Clinton's campaign failed to recognize until it was too late.  It's being trumped by a desire for change and to see Washington shaken up.  If voters can get that plus having a president who actually knows what he's doing, so much the better.

A less flexible, less intelligent guy than McCain would have continued to barrel down the "experience" track, wondering why on earth his argument wasn't getting traction.  But in campaigns, you can't change what people care about -- you can only change their perception of who's more likely to deliver what they care about.  So McCain went with the flow and picked Palin over, for example, Romney.

The question now is, what's Barack Obama going to do about it?  He keeps on repeating the Democratic equivalent of a McCain "experience" mantra.  But the fact is that people aren't buying the argument that McCain is "more of the same."  Barack's success banks on whether he gets that, and if he does, what else he's got in his arsenal.

Sure, he can try to "out-change" McCain.  But the problem is that the changes Barack's wanting to bring -- higher taxes, government controlled health care, a weaker stance internationally -- aren't likely to have mass appeal.  They can only roll in on a wave of discontent with the status quo (which is why, in part, the Dems are so invested in trying to portray McCain-Palin as status quo).

John McCain has enough experience and psychological toughness not to let an opponent get inside his head -- and to know when and how he's got to change the game.  It still remains to be seen whether that's an experience gap that Barack Obama is capable of closing.  And right now, that's the only kind of experience that matters.