Hillary Clinton Learns from Experience

A curious campaign theme from a former First Lady


KNOXVILLE, IOWA—Spending a day following Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, I was not surprised to hear her quote Franklin Roosevelt, any more than I've been surprised when she has invoked other Democrats like Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. But when she began talking about the importance of electing a president with experience, she brought to mind a very different president.

In her speech here Monday, Clinton said that "there is one job we can't afford on-the-job training for: That is the job of our next president. That could be the costliest job training in history." She went on: "We need a president who understands the magnitude and complexity of the challenges we face and has the strength and experience to address them from day one…"

If I were Barack Obama or John Edwards, I might have taken offense. But I might have taken even greater offense if I were George H. W. Bush. In 1992, after he lost his re-election bid, Bush probably never expected Bill Clinton's wife would someday be running for president while delivering lines seemingly inspired by his criticisms of Bill Clinton.

Back then, Bush was the one with the long years of service in government—as a congressman, ambassador, CIA director and vice president. The candidate named Clinton was the one with the comparatively modest resume, consisting mostly of 12 years as governor of a small state.

So Republicans warned that inexperience could be calamitous. "I ask you to close your eyes and imagine in a crisis situation an American leader totally without experience, completely untested, about whom we know very little, if you get down to it," Bush implored his listeners. When Clinton urged a change in policy on the Balkans, a White House spokesman dismissed him as a callow youth: "It sounds like the kind of reckless approach that indicates he better do some more homework on foreign policy."

The Clinton campaign, of course, had a different view. "If they're such whizzes on foreign policy," scoffed running mate Al Gore, "why is Saddam Hussein thumbing his nose at the entire world, claiming victory and still in power?"

By Tuesday, Hillary Clinton was abandoning the previous day's subtlety. "Now voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face," she said, in reference to Obama's childhood residence in Indonesia. "I think we need a president with more experience than that."

As a summary of Obama's experience, that's the equivalent of saying, "Now voters will decide whether redecorating the White House prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face." Her attack was enough to draw a rebuke from John Edwards, whom she recently accused of "mud-slinging," and who was struck by the irony of Clinton's sudden dive into the mire. "Like so many other things, when it comes to mud, Hillary Clinton says one thing and throws another," Edwards responded.

By stressing this issue, Clinton inadvertently raises the question of whether her experience really measures up to the claims. On the campaign trail, she brags that she has "35 years of experience"—which suggests that she expects to get credit not only for her time as first lady of the United States but also for her time as first lady of Arkansas, not to mention her time practicing law in Little Rock.

What Clinton doesn't mention is that she has just under eight years of experience in elective office—one more than John Edwards and four fewer than Obama. Being first lady no doubt has some value as preparation for the Oval Office, but no one would suggest that Laura Bush should run for president.

In 1992, of course, Bill Clinton, then a youthful 46, took the view that experience was overrated. He had a point: Richard Nixon was a failure despite years in high office in Washington, while Ronald Reagan was a success even though his entire political resume consisted of two terms as a governor. By the time Clinton completed his presidency, most Democrats would have said he proved that fresh ideas trump establishment credentials.

Over the last 15 years, however, Hillary Clinton has acquired a profound new respect for the value of Washington experience. And one thing that sort of experience teaches you is not to reverse yourself on an important issue, unless you need to.