A Résumé is Not Enough

Frank Rich notes that established candidates in both parties are struggling against comparative upstarts.

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.

As it happens, I asked McCain this very question on a conference call Wednesday afternoon, albeit somewhat more colorfully phrased. McCain laughed appreciatively and gave his standard answer: “Life isn’t fair.”

His serious answer, though, was actually quite elegant. We’ve had a good number of debates and opportunities for the candidates to shine and Huckabee has shined on those appearances. He comes across as a decent, personable guy and people like him. He’s answering tough questions in a way that gives a lot of people confidence.

That, I think, is better than Rich’s conclusion. Noting that Bill Clinton is working hard to hammer home Barack Obama’s relative inexperience without success, Rich believes a lack of experience may be seen as a virtue in today’s “youth-obsessed culture.”

For this, of course, Rich blames Bush.

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.

The irony here, of course, is that Bush himself was quite inexperienced by presidential standards. Yes, he surrounded himself with a hyper-experienced staff. But perhaps having little choice but to defer to their wisdom is problematic?

Rich ends his column on a more insightful note: Experience provides the opportunity to make mistakes. Too many of those on one’s résumé isn’t necessarily a good thing, especially if they’re recent and one hasn’t demonstrated having learned from them.

Ultimately, I don’t believe either Huckabee or Obama will get their parties’ nominations and a lack of experience, especially on the foreign policy front, will be a large part of the reason. But that’s going to require the more established candidates to do more than simply proclaim their experience; they must show what they’ve learned and why that’s going to be important in leading the country.

McCain’s time as prisoner of war three and a half decades ago doesn’t qualify him to be president. Plenty of men endured that hell and few of them have the qualities necessary to be commander-in-chief. The leadership he showed during his struggles, though, and the way in which they shaped his life, should be a huge advantage if he can express how they’ve prepared him to lead the country.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Boyd says:

    The Enter key, and the resulting paragraphs, are your friend.

    (A reference to a deleted spam post -ed.)

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    There are other explanations for the admiration of a lack of experience than a “youth-obsessed culture”, the poor track record of the experts being one of them.

    I think it’s a pervasive nostalgie de la bou.

    The American mythology encourages such a view. Andrew Jackson, the architect of our political system, was hailed (and cursed) for his humble origins as was Abraham Lincoln, hallowed as among the greatest of presidents.

    There’s a segment of the Democratic Party which is intractably technocratic in its outlook. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are exemplars of that view. But there’s also a segment of the Democratic Party which is determinedly anti-elite. John Edwards is trying to appeal to that group.

    Similarly, there’s a faction of the Republican Party which is technocratic in its view (Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney leap to mind) while there’s another faction that’s anti-elite, as Mike Huckabee’s meteoric rise demonstrates.

    Boths views are right; both are wrong.

  3. legion says:

    Well, I haven’t really analyzed the Dems through this particular lens yet, but the reason for a lack of reliability (dare I say ‘inevitability’?) in the GOP’s big names is pretty obvious – every big name in the GOP is a big name these days precisely because of their kowtowing to the Bush legacy. Even McCain, whom some poor deluded few still consider a ‘maverick’, has so thoroughly kissed that Ivy League butt the last few years that his association with the status quo is irreparable.

    And vanishingly few people like the status quo.

    It’s pretty simple to summarize:
    Association with Bush == Only way to get the establishment GOP to support you.
    Association with Bush == Not a ringing endorsement of judgment, character, or basic competence from the majority of actual Americans.

    Ergo, it’s anyone’s ball game for the GOP nomination.

  4. Wayne says:

    Pretty good post. I would agree that Huckabee rise had to do with his ability to answer questions in an elegant way, debate performance and coming off as a decent guy. Those that think it just Baptist supporting him is underestimated him.I think the attacks on some of his past policies have tempered his rise and how he handles them will determine if he gets the nomination.

    The problem with McCain’s experience as a P.O.W. is that he comes off as if he has been warp by it. Like a batter wife, many have sympathy for him but wonder if it may screw up his judgments. Who wants a president who will make purely emotional decisions instead of rational ones?

    I agree with Dave that many no longer trust the experts because of their track record. The last election was about change and I think the next one will be as well. How many innovated ways of doing something come from the establish community? If you elect someone that has a good deal of experience doing it one way, they will almost certainly continue to do it that way. Of course there is an inherent risk in change but I think many are willing to take that chance. The same-o B.S. is no longer popular.

  5. floyd says:

    It has been my experience that a hunger for “CHANGE”is hardly a motivator for politicians, It’s the folding money they’re after!!

  6. M1EK says:

    Smart but inexperienced is precisely one million times better than dumb but inexperienced. Obama is clearly smart enough to make the right call (ref: Iraq) even when experienced guys disagreed about what that call is.