Pure Horserace: Doesn't Experience Count?

generic presidentiual election 08 Barack Obama Hillary Clinton Rudy Giuliani John McCain campaign white house (Mitt Romney) AP/CBS

When it comes to choosing a president, experience counts — but only to a point. Voters are looking for more than hands-on experience and years of involvement in the issues they say are of paramount concern to them. The intangibles — fame, personality, inspirational ability and life story — are still the trump cards of presidential politics.

As a whole, this may be the most distinguished group of individuals ever to compete for the nation's top job. We haven't tallied up all the candidates of the past, but you're not likely to find more combined years of public service in any past field of candidates taken together.

Consider the résumés of those in the Democratic field generally described as "lower tier" candidates — Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel. They have a combined 74 years of experience in the United States Senate, 31 years in the House of Representatives and five years in a statehouse. Those considered the candidates to beat — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards — have a combined 16 years in the Senate.

The Republican side is equally imbalanced when it comes to rewarding candidates with elective office experience. Those currently seen as occupying the lower tier among the GOP — John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Tommy Thompson, Sam Brownback, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul — have a combined 32 years of service in the Senate, 60 years in the House and 25 years in state executive experience. Those currently seen as the three strongest Republican candidates — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson — have eight years experience in the Senate, four as governor and eight years in city executive experience.

These are generalities, of course. McCain, who contributes 21 years of Senate experience, began this year as the assumed front-runner in the GOP field and may yet find himself firmly back in the top tier, but his recent financial troubles have left him with a lot of ground to make up. And Clinton has more than just seven years in the Senate under her belt, having served for some 20 years as a First Lady both in Arkansas and the White House.

Still, those numbers are a stark reminder of what voters are looking for in their presidential choices — and what they aren't. At a time when complex issues of war and peace, of health, security and economic change top the agenda, experience in the arena would seem to be paramount. But there are reasons why the chief executive rarely emerges from the ranks of Congress, and this election promises to be no different.

If Clinton should win, which plenty of voters expect, it will likely be in spite of her (relatively) short Senate career, which has caused many to see her as more process-oriented ("60 votes") than visionary. Her campaign is selling experience, but that's based as much on her White House years as on her legislative record, with gender as is an added bonus, of course. Obama, an inspirational Africa-American candidate with a transcendent message, has not yet been hampered by his youth and (relative) inexperience in high office. Edwards, a feisty populist with a compelling life story, landed on the last presidential ballot despite just one Senate term.

Republicans likewise are being pulled to qualities outside of years served. Giuliani's post-9/11 performance remains a strong image among a party which values that quality over almost all others. Romney has become the sunny optimist with a CEO's approach, another trait his party's activists are attracted to. Thompson, who remains the great hope for many not quite ready to buy what the rest are selling, is likely to be called an actor more often than a senator.

Richardson and McCain are capable of mounting real challenges for the nominations, but only because they combine some of the experience with the intangibles of the front-runners at this point. In other years, a Biden or a Dodd, a Huckabee or a Tommy Thompson might well be considered top-tier candidates, but not in this wide-open and high-stakes election. Still, take a good look at this whole group of accomplished candidates — we may not see another field like it for many years to come. — Vaughn Ververs


The Pentagon Does Hillary A Favor? It appears so, thanks to a harsh response Hillary Clinton received — in her capacity as a senator and member of the Armed Services Committee — to an inquiry she made about the Defense Department's planning for the eventual end of the Iraq war.

According to The Associated Press, Clinton asked for details on how the Pentagon would handle a withdrawal from Iraq. Her question focused not on timetables, but rather on the logistics of removing thousands of soldiers and tons of equipment from the country. But she received a strongly-worded response from Eric Edelman, the Defense Department's undersecretary for policy: "Premature and public discussion of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon and Somalia."

Clinton, in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, called Edelman's response "outrageous and dangerous." That could be the last word in the exchange, but it's not unreasonable to suggest that Clinton is probably enjoying this argument and hopes it goes on awhile longer — just to make sure the Democratic Party's anti-war wing takes notice.

One of the major questions that's faced Clinton's campaign from the start is whether she can win over the party's anti-war base despite her 2002 vote to authorize military action in Iraq. John Edwards has apologized for his vote, and Barack Obama wasn't in the Senate at the time, but was already speaking out against the invasion. Clinton, on the other hand, has not apologized but only said her vote reflected what she knew at that time and, had she known how the things would end up, she would have acted differently.

The current fight with the Pentagon allows Clinton the best of both worlds: She can hold her ground on her 2002 vote, while also pressing the administration on its plans for withdrawal, perhaps helping her argument that she wants to end the war as much as her rivals. On top of that, Edelman's response — stating that even talking about withdrawal helps the enemy — is the exact kind of argument that stokes the passions of those who strongly oppose the war. Seeing Clinton subject to that accusation, and fighting it, may make her skeptics view her just a little more sympathetically. — David Miller


Stinking Badges: Jay Garrity, a longtime staff member of Mitt Romney who is currently on leave, has already received his share of bad publicity. He reportedly told a reporter following Romney's caravan in New Hampshire to "veer off" and claimed he had run the reporter's license plate. He's also been accused of impersonating an officer when he called a service company and threatened to issue a citation to one of the company's drivers for speeding and erratic driving.

Now, the Boston Herald reports that Garrity created fake silver badges with the Massachusetts state seal attached to them, and then distributed them among staffers, who used them to "strong-arm reporters, avoid paying tolls and trick security guards into giving them immediate access to campaign venues."

The Romney campaign has denied that the campaign provided anyone with badges and noted that Garrity remains on leave with the campaign. We're guessing he won't be coming back anytime soon. — David Miller


Speaking With A Speaker: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich isn't running for president, at least not yet, but that doesn't mean he shies away from talking about his vision for America — and he does just that with CBS News' Brian Goldsmith in this week's installment of Political Players. While Gingrich is open about the fact that he's considering a run, for now the Georgia Republican is focused on American Solutions, a think-tank aimed at finding bipartisan ways of addressing issues facing the country on all levels of government.

But don't think that Gingrich isn't thinking about '08. He also points out to Goldsmith that his tenure as speaker in the 1990s was preceded by years of work behind the scenes. So is American Solutions just the top of a platform for launching a presidential campaign? We won't find out until the end of September. But you can read what Gingrich has to say about other topics, including Hillary Clinton, in this week's interview.


Editor's note: Pure Horserace is a daily update of political news as interpreted by the political observers at CBSNews.com. Click here to sign up for the e-mail version.

By Vaughn Ververs and David Miller
  • David Miller

Comments