Hillary Clinton’s 35 Years of ‘Experience’
Hillary Clinton and her supporters tout her 35 years of public policy experience. The Hill‘s Bob Cusack assesses that figure.
In a concerted effort to deflect attacks on her presidential credentials, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y) and her allies repeatedly say she has 35 years of relevant experience. She has been an elected official only seven years, but the drumbeat of sound bites and statements touting the 35-year figure appears to have paid off. Even her Democratic rivals prefer to assail her electability rather than her experience.
Polls show that Democratic voters are comfortable with Clinton’s background. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of over 600 New Hampshire Democratic primary voters showed that 47 percent believe she has the right experience to be president. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) were tied for a distant second, with 10 percent each. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) attracted 8 percent.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the GOP front-runner in national polls, panned Clinton’s experience during an interview on Fox News’s “Hannity & Colmes” Tuesday night. He said, “Honestly, in most respects, I don’t know Hillary’s experience. She’s never run a city, she’s never run a state. She’s never run a business … So I’m trying to figure out where the experience is here.”
Clinton, who will turn 60 next week, has not been timid in laying out the strength of her résumé. In an Oct. 3 release announcing the American Federation of Teachers endorsement of her candidacy, she said, “Throughout my 35 years of working on education, I’ve seen the dedication that American teachers demonstrate day in and day out.” In September, Clinton issued a release on Hispanic Heritage Month that stated, “Thirty five years ago, I traveled through South Texas, registering Latino voters …” Describing her healthcare plan, Clinton said that “a family is a child’s first school, and I have a long history going back 35 years as a child advocate …”
The Clinton campaign suggests that the senator’s experience dates back to before her marriage to Bill Clinton in 1975. The experience clock for Sen. Clinton, according to her public statements, started in 1972 as a private attorney in Arkansas for Marian Wright Edelman, who subsequently founded the Children’s Defense Fund.
Citing experience as a non-elected official can be tricky, according to some analysts. While her campaign has suggested that she played a major role in her husband’s leadership of Arkansas and later of the country, she wasn’t elected to office until 2000.
Few question that Clinton gathered relevant experience when she traveled to 78 countries as first lady. Theodore Lowi, a senior professor of American Institutions at Cornell University, said the Clintons worked as a team for decades: “They’re a political couple.”
But the senator’s detractors believe that her limited time in elected office is a weakness. Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University, said, “The résumés of every presidential candidate are always padded. I think that most of [Clinton’s claims on experience] are not outrageously inaccurate.” He added that Clinton’s message is “that you’re not getting someone who needs on-the-job training.”
The claims that low level work on political campaigns and lobbying organizations constitutes serious preparation for the presidency are certainly strained. Still, she’s experienced enough to be president. Being married to a governor and president is hardly the same thing as being governor and president but there’s not much doubt that she got an intimate view of and was a major participant in the decision-making process. One could argue that her policy role as First Lady was as at least as important as that of most pre-Mondale Vice Presidents.
That said, Giuliani has a point. While Clinton is a first rate policy wonk, she’s never had the pressure of making and living with major decisions. Advising the executive requires a much different skill set than being the executive.
The current president served as governor of a large state (albeit one with a relatively weak executive) for six years. His predecessor, Clinton’s husband, had been governor for twelve years. Bush 41 had spent eight years as a very influential vice president and had run the CIA and the Republican National Committee. Reagan had run California for eight years and the Screen Actors’ Guild for eight years. Carter was a one-term governor, a long-time business owner, and a former naval officer. Ford, unelected to the presidency, had no real executive experience unless one counts House Minority Leader. Nixon spent eight years as vice president but in an era when that office was much less powerful than today. Johnson had no real executive experience but was Senate Democratic Leader for eight years. Kennedy had been a junior naval officer but otherwise had little executive experience.
We’ll stop there since, arguably, the presidency has changed radically in the television era.
In more recent years, Americans have preferred governors to legislators but there seems to be no real pattern in terms of eventual success as president. Running through the list, we see some very effective and very weak presidents with substantial and relatively little executive experience.
It may simply not matter. Perhaps the presidency is so different from any other office that no preparation is adequate and it comes down to temperament and external circumstance. Indeed, the ability to be an inspiring communicator would seem to be the common denominator for success.
UPDATE: Jules Crittenden figures people’s experience with Hillary, rather than Hillary’s experience, will be her main obstacle.