Newsweek: Obama's Experience Trumps McCain's?

Newsweek is at it again (see here, here, and here for starters). Virtually any positive angle its writers can come up with for Barack Obama, it'll take. The latest comes from "special guest columnist" Alan Ehrenhalt who argues -- and then doesn't argue (you'll see what I mean) -- that Barack Obama's experience as a state legislator makes him more qualified (to be president) than John McCain's twenty-two years as a U.S. Senator (and his four years as a U.S. Representative before that).

But here's something I bet you didn't know: If Obama becomes president, he will have spent more time serving as a state legislator (eight years) than anyone who has occupied the White House since Abraham Lincoln.

You're thinking that's kind of irrelevant. John McCain has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 1986; do I really mean to suggest that Obama's eight years in the Illinois Senate (not the most august deliberative body, as anyone who has seen it will attest) provide the same preparation for the presidency? Well, not exactly. But looking back on quite a few years covering Congress, and an almost equal number of years following legislatures, I'm drawn to some slightly curmudgeonly comments about what it is that U.S. senators do, and what it is that state legislators do.

This is what I meant above when I said that Ehrenhalt "argues and then doesn't argue" that Obama's experience trumps McCain's. He brings up the totally irrelevant fact that Obama "will have spent more time serving as a state legislator" than any president (if elected) in 150 years. Yet, the Illinois Senate is "not the most august deliberative body"? What?

Ehrenhalt goes on to note that modern U.S. senators are really nothing more than "gadflies;" their aides do most of the heavy work, and that they have "little expertise" on most issues brought before the body. In contrast, state legislators "keep all the state's significant issues in mind;" in Obama's case, he

was forced to wrestle with the minutiae of health-care policy, utility deregulation, transportation funding, school aid, and a host of other issues that are vitally important to America's coming years, but that U.S. senators are usually able to dispose of with a quick once-over. State legislators have to do this largely on their own, without ubiquitous staff guidance, because staffing is not lavish even in the more professional state capitols. They enter into day-to-day bargaining relationships over the details of legislation with colleagues of both parties; there is no one else to do it for them.

But again, Ehrenhalt qualifies this lengthy description. He notes that [state legislators] "at their worst, they are doggedly parochial, people who tend first and foremost to the interests of a relatively small constituency." First it was that Ehrenhalt was "not exactly" arguing that Obama's local political experience is better than McCain's at the national level; now, he notes that state legislators, well, can be good and bad. Got that?

Obama simply had to work with his Republican colleagues while in the Illinois Senate, Ehrenhalt writes, to "work out the details of legislation expanding health-care coverage and revising campaign-finance law." Oh, and get this distinguishing feature of Obama's local "experience": He played in a local poker game where "party and ideology were utterly irrelevant." Wow! Yet -- again -- Ehrenhalt qualifies his points! "The last thing I want to do is idealize state legislatures," he writes. Its members are "prone to conflicts of interest" and are "frequently easy for lobbyists to manipulate." But he just wants everyone to be aware that the "skill set [Obama] picked up over eight years in a state Capitol" might actually be superior to "two decades in the pompous, cordoned-off environment of the U.S. Senate." I wonder if Ehrenhalt remembers the criticism of Obama's lack of bipartisanship in the U.S. Senate?

Ehrenhalt goes on to compare Hillary Clinton's claims of superior (to Obama) experience, criticizing her use of her term(s) as First Lady. He says that no one had ever utilized such a claim before; well, of course not. No former First Lady was ever a serious candidate for the presidential nomination before! Nevertheless, he ends on as indecisive a note as the whole article was:

Does having been First Lady make you better prepared to give the right answer when the phone rings in the dead of night? Maybe it does. I'm not saying no; I'm saying I don't know, and nobody else does either.

As for the fall campaign, I am not urging anyone to vote for Obama, or against McCain, on the issue of experience. What I am suggesting is that experience itself is a slippery commodity to measure—that there is no easy way to guess what sort of political career is ideal for a president—and that we would all be better off just listening to what the candidates say and how they say it, and spending a little time looking into what sort of people they are.

Indeed. Ehrenhalt isn't "urging anyone to vote for Obama, or against McCain;" he just spent an entire article pointing out how Obama was an incredibly dedicated public servant in Illinois, and how he accumulated in-depth knowledge of the issues. In contrast, the only positive thing noted about the U.S. Senate (i.e. John McCain), out of myriad denigrating statements, was that a few senators may develop "an encyclopedic knowledge of topics that interest them" (but these "are the minority").

Ehrenhalt's [not so] clever attempts at even-handedness ("Well, not exactly;" "Maybe it does;" "I'm not saying no; I'm saying I don't know," etc.) essentially make his entire column moot. But its message is as clear as its previous Newsweek Barack-embracing screeds.

Cross-posted at The Colossus of Rhodey.

2008 Presidential Newsweek

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