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.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, The Presidency, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. Triumph says:

    Hillary DOES have 35 years of experience as a fast-talking, pro-tax, national security-compromising liberal.

  2. Captain-Sky says:

    Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

    While policies against stupidity are difficult to enforce, this was an easy call.

  3. SeniorD says:

    Hillary Rodham does, indeed, have 35 years of experience. As a young, impressionable teenager of 15 years, she worked tirelessly at honing her always sharp political skills. Then, when she met her Patron Saint, Saul Alinsky, she learned at his knee how to organize anarchist demonstrations in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago. Not willing to put more time in working with the lumppen proletariate, the newly confirmed Communist sought out a potential partner to bring her even greater glory. Meeting Bill Clinton was the best thing in her life, he could act as her stalking horse while she played ‘Power beside the Throne’.

  4. Sam says:

    Not willing to put more time in working with the lumppen proletariate, the newly confirmed Communist sought out a potential partner to bring her even greater glory.

    How did this get through the stupid sieve?

  5. G.A.Phillips says:

    figures people’s experience with Hillary, rather than Hillary’s experience, will be her main obstacle.

    Not to mention that she is an ear and eye sore!

  6. jdr says:

    If she is ever truly exposed for what she truly is she will go down. Ask Peter Paul. Ask who is Mark Penn, Sandy Berger, Howard Wolfson. Now if she’s throwing a party this month called “Rural Americans for Hillary” why is it in Washington D.C. and put on Monsanto?? It only gets thicker. She needs to be exposed.

  7. mcthorogood says:

    Oh my God!

    Hillary Rodham Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for U.S. President, may be called as a material witness in the state of California, in what may be the largest election fraud in U.S. history. All news of this case has been effectively censored in the U.S. mainstream media. To read the full story, “For Clinton, 2000 Fund-Raising Controversy Lingers,” in The Wall Street Journal, click here.

    Hillary may have violated the law by not reporting large contributions to her successful 2000 campaign for the New York Senate. Mr. Peter F. Paul claims that his contributions were omitted from the public reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, and Hillary denies all knowledge of these contributions. See the latest ruling in Paul vs. Clinton.

    Hillary even denies knowing Mr. Paul, a three time convicted felon, who made the contributions to her 2000 Senate campaign. A video produced by the Equal Justice Foundation of America has been viewed more than 725,000 times. A case such as this would normally end any political aspirations for public office in the United States, and certainly raises questions about the fund-raising practices of the Clinton camp.

  8. floyd says:

    It is odd that she sites 35 years of experience.

    It just so happens that 35 years of life after being born an American is pretty much what is required to be qualified.