When the 2008 presidential campaign began, I lacked strong feelings for or against Hillary Rodham Clinton. I knew, of course, that many people loathed the former first lady and that many other people adored her. But I'd never felt the large emotions she seemed to stir in others. New York's junior senator wants to be president? Fine, I thought. Let's hear her pitch. Because she was still a relative newcomer to government service, I assumed that, more than most presidential candidates, Clinton would recognize the need to give voters a reason to vote for her. I waited expectantly to discover what that reason might be.
I never dreamed the reason would be "experience." More astonishing still, the public seems to be buying it. According to a new New York Times/CBS News poll, 79 percent of all Democratic primary voters believe that Hillary Clinton has "prepared herself well enough for the job of President," compared with only 40 percent for Obama. "Experience Counts" declared the headline of a Jan. 9 editorial in the Boston Globe about the New Hampshire victories of Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "The results suggest that, at the least, New Hampshire voters put more stock in the length of a candidate's track record than Iowa voters did," the Globe said. But the paper never got around to explaining what, in Hillary's case, that experience consisted of.
Let's be clear. If you're a Democrat, experience isn't on this year's menu. The most experienced among the major candidates seeking the Democratic nomination were Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut. They have now dropped out. The remaining major candidates—Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.—all lack lengthy records in government.
Edwards served a single term in the Senate. Obama served eight years in the Illinois state Senate and is halfway through his first term in the U.S. Senate. Clinton is about to begin her eighth year in the U.S. Senate. Going by years spent as an elective official, Obama's 11 years exceeds Clinton's seven, which in turn exceeds Edwards' six. But it's a silly calculus. They all come out about the same, even when you factor in Clinton's youthful work on the House judiciary committee's impeachment inquiry, her membership on the board of the Legal Services Corp., her chairmanship of the Arkansas Educational Standards committee, her crafting of an unsuccessful national health-care bill, and her sharing Bill Clinton's bed most nights while he was Arkansas governor and president of the United States.
In Slate's women's blog, the "XX Factor," various colleagues have argued (see here, here, and here) that Clinton has sufficient experience under her belt to be president. I agree, but that's not the right question. The more urgent question is: Where the hell does she come off claiming superior experience? Here Clinton is in the Jan. 14 Newsweek, comparing herself with Obama:
I wish it didn't have to be a choice. I think a lot of people who are torn between us feel that way. But it is a contest, and the contrasts have to be drawn and the questions have to be asked because, obviously, I wouldn't be in this race and working as hard as I am unless I thought I am uniquely qualified at this moment in our history to be the president we need starting in 2009 … I think it is informed by my deep experience over the last 35 years, my firsthand knowledge of what goes on inside a White House.
Oh, please. Thirty-five years takes you back to 1973, half of which Hillary spent in law school, for crying out loud. I don't mean to denigrate her professional experience. Clinton worked many years in corporate and public-interest law, performed advocacy work for the Children's Defense Fund and other groups, and was a university lecturer. She also devoted herself to raising a seemingly bright and loving daughter, which is no small feat, particularly given the public spotlight and some conspicuously bad behavior on the father's part.
But in government, Clinton's chief role over the years has been that of kibitzer. An important kibitzer, to be sure—what spouse isn't?—but not a direct participant. Clinton emphasizes in particular her profound experience in foreign policy. Here she is on Dec. 20:
It is tempting any time things seem quieter for a minute on the international front to think that we don't need a president who's up to speed on foreign affairs and military matters. Well, that's the kind of logic that got us George Bush in the first place. Experience in foreign affairs is critical for ending the war in Iraq, averting war in Iran, negotiating a Middle East peace and dealing with North Korea.
But a Dec. 26 New York Times story revealed that during her husband's two terms in office, Hillary Clinton did not hold a security clearance, did not attend meetings of the National Security Council, and was not given a copy of the president's daily intelligence briefing. During trips to Bosnia and Kosovo, she "acted as a spokeswoman for American interests rather than as a negotiator." On military affairs, most of her experience derives not from her White House years but from serving on the Senate armed services committee. In this capacity, William Kristol notes gleefully in the Jan. 14 New York Times, Clinton told Gen. David Petraeus this past September that his reports of military progress in Iraq—since shown to be undeniable—required "the willing suspension of disbelief." (What Kristol and Clinton both fail to say is that the surge's laudable military success has created a short-term opportunity that the Iraqi government and Bush himself are doing tragically little to seize. For example, a much-touted move by the Iraqi parliament to open government jobs to former members of the Baath party is, according to a Jan. 14 New York Times story, "riddled with loopholes and caveats to the point that some Sunni and Shiite officials say it could actually exclude more former Baathists than it lets back in.")
Clinton's claim to superior experience isn't merely dishonest. It's also potentially dangerous should she become the nominee. If Clinton continues to build her campaign on the dubious foundation of government experience, it shouldn't be very difficult for her GOP opponent to pull that edifice down. That's especially true if a certain white-haired senator now serving his 25th year in Congress (four in the House and 21 in the Senate) wins the nomination. McCain could easily make Hillary look like an absolute fraud who is no more truthful about her depth of government experience than she is about why her mother named her "Hillary." Dennis Kucinich has more government experience than Clinton. (He also has a better health-care plan, but we'll save that for another day.) If Clinton doesn't find a new theme soon, she won't just be cutting Obama's throat. She'll also be cutting her own.