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.