Jun 13 2011

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The Consequence of Experience in Presidential Candidates

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True Leadership is Distilled From Experiennce

If there is a lesson for us in the current travails of Congressman Anthony Weiner, it is the very real danger of America’s mania for celebrity.

Be a catalyst for an event, watch it go viral, and even an obscure, private citizen is the talk of every water cooler and news show around the country; waiting on the inevitable book deal or coveted “pundit” slot on the cable networks.

The trend is alarming not only for the unqualified instant attention it brings, but also for the ultimately unrequited expectations that we place on these sudden stars; that their successes or foibles have resonance in our own personal stories, and thus we are falsely invested in them.

It applies equally to the prurient and distasteful, such as the case with Weiner, to more consequential issues, such as the qualifications for President of the United States of America.

When did political celebrity replace a resume and experience as the measure of a presidential candidate?

Yes, the current field of Republican candidates for ’12 lacks a standout, but far more interesting and mystifying at this point are those politicians who are being lobbied by the “Big Feet” in Republican and conservative circles to jump in.

Chris Christie of New Jersey?

Yes, the Governor has been an icon for the conservative movement with his straight talk and willingness to take on the liberal government employees unions, but Christie has been on the job for all of seventeen months.

Before that, he was US Attorney for seven years.

Is that really what qualifies you to be President?

Or take Paul Ryan.

An exceptional member of the Republican House leadership, who has served 12 years in Congress. Ryan is a keen intellect who is the architect of the only realistic plan to save Medicare that is currently on the table.

Yet Ryan has served no constituency larger than his district, and his executive management experience is limited to the six months he has served as Budget Committee chair.

Is this what a qualified president looks like?

Indeed, there was a time when experience mattered.

Democrats often dismissed Ronald Reagan as nothing more than a second-rate actor, but any review of Reagan’s record shows so much more.

Reagan took on and beat a popular, incumbent Democratic governor in California in 1966. Reagan won re-election in 1970 and ultimately served a full eight-year term.

As chief executive of California, Reagan ran a state whose GDP is equal to all but the top ten countries on the globe. By population, geography, demographics and economics, California was and remains one of the most complex political entities in the world.

Only two years into his first term, Reagan took his first run at the presidency as a long-shot candidate of conservatives in 1968. In 1976, Reagan again entered the fray and fought President Gerald Ford across the country in the Republican primary; the closest presidential primary until Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008.

When Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter in 1980, he did so as one of the most experienced politicians and executive leaders in the United States at that time..

The same is also true on the other side of the aisle, including the leader that President Obama was (ironically) often compared, the nation’s youngest elected President, John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy began in politics as a Boston congressman for six years.  He then ran against incumbent Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952 and beat him.

Kennedy went on to serve eight years in the Senate, winning re-election in 1958. In between, Kennedy was nearly nominated for the Vice Presidency in 1956, before he ultimately won the Democratic nomination in 1960.

While lacking in substantive executive experience, there is no doubting Kennedy’s run at the national level.

Compare any of those records to that of candidate Obama.

Factually speaking, Barack Obama was the least experienced presidential nominee since Jimmy Carter.  You have to go back to 1940 Republican nominee, Wendell Willkie to find a less experienced nominee.

Obama served three, two-year terms in the Illinois Senate, before winning a US Senate seat in 2004. Sworn in as a US Senator in 2005, Obama began his presidential campaign in February 2007, only slightly more than two years after arriving in Washington.

In sum, six years on local, state issues, two years on national issues. And no time to get deep on issues, sponsor legislation or learn the mechanics of policy formulation and implementation.

Indeed, nothing in Obama’s professional background, from law professor to community organizer, to his time in the Illinois and US Senate, provided executive management experience.

Nothing before the presidential race in 2008 exposed Obama to points of view outside his own.

Obama’s extraordinary strength was not in the mechanics of governing, but rather in his personal narrative and his ability relate that experience to everyday American problems.

It was inspired, but lacked substance.

The result was a presidency infused with extraordinary expectation, but which lacked any fundemental, formal training or referential experience.

The result of that weakness speaks for itself in the Obama record over the last two years.

In the upcoming presidential election, the US cannot afford another president who has to learn the job by doing it, with all the mistakes that come along the way.

Our brewing financial crisis leaves no margin of error.

So in the most open GOP primary in memory, it will be crucial to remember that celebrity is nice, but it is experience and executive leadership that matters.

Insipration is not a plan. Charisma doesn’t manage a government.

Indeed, at the end of the day, the ability to win an election is ultimately less important if the candidate is not prepared from Day #1 to govern.

This should be the mantra for all serious Republican primary voters as they consider the choice ahead.

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