WE can only imagine what is going on inside John McCain’s head when he contemplates Mike Huckabee. It can’t be pretty. No presidential candidate in either party has more experience in matters of war than the Arizona senator, and yet in a wartime election he is being outpaced by a guy who has zero experience and is proud of it.
“I may not be the expert that some people are on foreign policy,” Mr. Huckabee joked to Don Imus, “but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.” So much for the gravitas points earned during a five-and-a-half year stay at the Hanoi Hilton.
But if Mr. McCain has so far resisted slapping down the upstart in his party, Bill Clinton has shown no such self-restraint about Barack Obama. Early this month the former president criticized the press for not sufficiently covering the candidates’ “record in public life” and thereby making “people think experience is irrelevant.” His pique boiled over on Charlie Rose’s show on Dec. 14, when he made his now-famous claim that the 2008 election will be a referendum on whether “no experience matters.” He insinuated that Mr. Obama was tantamount to “a gifted television commentator” and likened a potential Obama presidency to a roll of the dice.
Attention Bill Clinton: If that’s what this election is about, it’s already over. No matter how much Hillary Clinton, Mr. McCain or Rudy Giuliani brag about being tested and vetted, it’s not experience that will be decisive in determining the next president.
For many, Mr. McCain’s long record of experience may be a liability even greater than his party-bucking moderation on immigration and his bear hug of President Bush on Iraq. What his résumé mainly does is remind a youth-obsessed culture of his age. When Gallup asked voters in August to rate traits as desirable or not in the next president, the “undesirable” percentages for being a member of a racial or ethnic minority group (13), a woman (14), a Mormon (22) or having “strained relationships” with one’s children (45) all paled next to being age 70 or older (52). It’s not morning in America for Reaganesque elders in the political arena anymore.
For Mrs. Clinton, the failure of “experience” as a selling point was becoming apparent even as her husband continued to push it on Charlie Rose. Last week’s ABC News-Washington Post poll in Iowa found that she clobbers Mr. Obama on the question of who has the most experience — 49 percent to 8 percent. But to little end. That same survey had Mr. Obama ahead by 4 points over all because, as this year’s pervasive polling matchup has it, the electorate values change over experience.
The rabid hunger for change, it turns out, has made the very idea of experience as toxic as every other attribute of the Bush White House. The once-heralded notion of a C.E.O. presidency, overstocked with “tested” Washington and Fortune 500 executives like Cheney and Rumsfeld, is now in the toilet with Larry Craig. You couldn’t push the pendulum further in the other direction than by supporting a candidate like Mr. Huckabee, who is blatantly unprepared to be president and whose most impressive battle has been with his weight. In a Rasmussen poll in Florida, Mr. Huckabee even did well among foreign-policy-minded Republicans whose most important issue is Iraq.
But for Mrs. Clinton, the problem isn’t just that the Bush years have tarnished the notion that experience is a positive indicator of future performance. She has further devalued that sales pitch with her own inflated claims of what her experience has been. Ted Sorensen, the J.F.K. speechwriter now in the Obama camp, saw the backlash coming in a recent conversation I had with him after Mrs. Clinton had mocked Mr. Obama for counting his elementary-school years in Indonesia as an asset.
“Hillary should be careful about scoffing at other people’s experience,” Mr. Sorensen said. “It’s not as if the process of osmosis gives her presidential qualities by physical proximity.”
Whatever Mrs. Clinton’s experience as first lady or senator, what matters most in any case is not its sheer volume, that 35 years she keeps citing. It’s what she did or did not learn along the way that counts. That’s why one of the most revealing debate passages so far came in an exchange that earned much laughter but scant scrutiny this month in Des Moines.
This was the moment when Mr. Obama was asked how he could deliver a clean break from the past while relying on “so many Clinton advisers.” Mrs. Clinton jokingly called out, “I want to hear that,” prompting Mr. Obama to one-up her by responding, “Well, Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me, as well.”
Well, touché. But what was left unexamined beneath the levity was a revealing distinction between these two candidates. The questioner was right: Mr. Obama, like Mrs. Clinton, has indeed turned to former Clintonites for foreign-policy advice. But the Clinton players were not homogeneous, and who ended up with which ’08 candidate is instructive.
The principal foreign-policy Clinton alumni in Mr. Obama’s campaign include Susan Rice, a former assistant secretary of state, and Tony Lake, the former national security adviser and a prewar skeptic who said publicly in February 2003 that the Bush administration had not made the case that Saddam was an “imminent threat.” Ms. Rice, in an eloquent speech in November 2002, said that the Bush administration was “trying to change the subject to Iraq” from the war against Al Qaeda and warned that if it tried to fight both wars at once, “one, if not both, will suffer.” Her text now reads as a bookend to Mr. Obama’s senatorial campaign speech challenging the wisdom of the war only weeks earlier that same fall.
Mrs. Clinton’s current team was less prescient. Though it includes one of the earlier military critics of Bush policy, Gen. Wesley Clark, he is balanced by Gen. Jack Keane, an author of the Bush “surge.” The Clinton campaign’s foreign policy and national security director is a former Madeleine Albright aide, Lee Feinstein, who in November 2002 was gullible enough to say on CNBC that “we should take the president at his word, which is that he sees war as a last resort” — an argument anticipating the one Mrs. Clinton still uses to defend her vote on the Iraq war authorization.
In late April 2003, a week before “Mission Accomplished,” Mr. Feinstein could be found on CNN saying that he was “fairly confident” that W.M.D. would turn up in Iraq. Asked if the war would be a failure if no weapons were found, he said, “I don’t think that that’s a situation we’ll confront.” Forced to confront exactly that situation over the next year, he dug in deeper, co-writing an essay for Foreign Affairs (available on its Web site) arguing that “the biggest problem with the Bush pre-emption strategy may be that it does not go far enough.”
In a two-page handwritten letter in response to a recent column of mine criticizing Mrs. Clinton’s Senate votes on Iraq and Iran, Bill Clinton made a serious and impassioned defense of her foreign-policy record. On the subject of her support for the so-called Kyl-Lieberman amendment on Iran this fall, Mr. Clinton wrote: “If Senator Obama, for example, had really believed it was an indirect authorization to attack Iran, he would not have stayed away on the campaign trail, but would have come back to vote against it.” That’s a fair point — and a fair criticism of Mr. Obama as he continues to vilify this particular Hillary Clinton vote. If voting for Kyl-Lieberman was as grave a step toward war as Mr. Obama claims, there’s no excuse for his absence.
Mr. Clinton’s narrow defense of his wife’s Iraq vote in 2002 — it was not “a blanket authorization to go to war,” he wrote — doesn’t persuade me. But even if it did, her choice for foreign-policy director in 2008 makes me question her ability to profit from experience and make a clean break with the establishment thinking in both parties that enabled the Iraq fiasco. Judgment calls like this rather than failures of the press may answer her husband’s question as to why the public finds her experience “irrelevant.”
What Mrs. Clinton clearly has learned from her White House experience, as she reminds us, is to strike back at her critics. Unfortunately, she has assimilated those critics’ methods as well. Attacks on Mr. Obama’s record and views are fair game. But the steady personal attacks — the invocations of “cocaine” and “Hussein” and “madrassa” by surrogates — smell like the dirty tricks of the old Clinton haters. The Clinton-camp denials that these tactics have been “authorized” sound like Karl Rove’s denials of similar smear campaigns against John McCain in 2000.
If Mrs. Clinton is to win, she won’t do so by running on that kind of experience but by rising above it. Bill Clinton wouldn’t have shifted gears to refer to his wife constantly as a “change agent,” however implausibly, if his acute political sensors didn’t tell him that Americans are not just willing but eager to roll the dice.