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The Experience Paradox

This analysis was written by CBS News senior political correspondent Jeff Greenfield.



"The worst news for Mr. Nixon," John Kennedy told the Al Smith dinner back in 1960, "is that the Yankees fired Casey Stengel. It shows that experience doesn't count."

The quip, a play on the Nixon campaign slogan "Experience Counts", also shows that the issue is a hardy perennial in American politics. This year, it's taken on a bizarre twist, because the respective campaigns are offering arguments that can be used with equal force against themselves. If Joe Biden's 35 years in the Senate prove he is not an agent of change, as Sarah Palin argues, then what about John McCain's 26 years in Congress? If Palin's years as mayor of Wassila are the political equivalent of small beer, what about Barack Obama's years in the Illinois State Senate?

Beyond the "so's your old man" aspect of this back-and-forth -- no offense to John McCain intended -- this debate has revealed something remarkable about the "experience" issue: it's much more likely to matter in a vice presidential choice than in a presidential choice.

It is the unique nature of American politics that someone far beyond the nation's capital, someone with no experience in matters of national statecraft, can win a party's nomination for chief executive; indeed, it's something our European cousins find inexplicable. How can a peanut farmer from Georgia oust an incumbent president; how can an actor from Hollywood oust an incumbent president? How can a governor from Dogpatch -- okay, Arkansas -- oust an incumbent president? How can a Texas governor who couldn't find Pakistan on a map defeat (more or less) an incumbent vice-president with a quarter-century of Washington experience?

Americans don't find it all that puzzling: it's the historical antipathy to "Washington insiders"; the nominating process that long ago took the power away from political professionals and put it in the hands of primary voters; the capacity of the media to transform an unknown into a hot commodity in a flash (See "Obama, Palin, Convention speeches of..."). Within this process, however, lies a curious historical fact: the more voters have turned to outsiders as their presidential choices, the more these nominees have insisted on insider experience when choosing a running mate.

Consider recent history: from 1960 onward, we've had five nominees who came from beyond the Capital: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. In every case, these nominees chose running mates who were consummate Washington insiders: Carter chose Sen. Walter Mondale; Reagan picked Bush the First; Dukakis chose Sen. Lloyd Bentsen; Clinton picked Sen. Al Gore; and Bush the Second chose former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. In fact, all of these selections were chosen because the Presidential nominees felt they had to balance their "outsiderness" with partners of unquestionable "insider" pedigree.

By contrast, only two vice-presidential nominees have not fit the "experienced insider" model. In 1968, Richard Nixon chose first-term Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew; and in 1984, Walter Mondale picked third-term Rep. Geraldine Ferraro. In both cases, the presidential nominees could argue that they were so clearly "experienced" that they did not need that quality in a running mate. And in both cases, the choices backfired: Agnew's foot-in-mouth disease resulted in the Democrats' airing an ad that featured a disembodied voice laughing hysterically at the idea of an Agnew presidency; the dicey real-estate connections of Ferraro's husband got Ferraro's historic-first nomination off to a wobbly start. (McCain's choice of first term Alaska Gov. Palin looks like a political winner, but we're not going to know this until she steps outside of the protective cocoon the McCain campaign has now erected for her)

Now take a step back from the history and ask yourself: does it make sense that presidential nominees demand more experience from their running-mates than voters demand of the presidential nominees? In a word, yes. In our long-distance campaigns, voters have months, even a couple of years, to assess the claims of the candidates. The press, the other candidates and the numberless voices across the Web, have time to examine every aspect of a candidate, from biography to friends and associates to public policy arguments. No matter how much a candidate lacks in traditional "experience", he or she will have had to come to grips with just about all the significant--and many insignificant--issues that a potential president might face.

In this sense, Rudy Giuliani's sarcastic reference to Barack Obama's "300 national security advisors" was revealing: Obama has indeed created something like his own national security apparatus within his campaign, just as George W. Bush turned to the Hoover Institute and George Schultz when preparing his own presidential run back in 2000.

This is also why, at a post-2004 gathering among operatives and the press, a top Bush campaign aide said the candidate they most feared was John Edwards. His less-than-one-Senate-term experience would not have been disabling the aide said, because the very fact of securing a major-party nomination gave that nominee credibility.

That does not apply to the vice-presidential selection process. Choosing a relative unknown means the public has to rely on the presidential nominee's standards and judgment; and that reliance is a lot easier to come by if the choice is someone the public can plausibly see as a potential president.

In choosing Sarah Palin, John McCain appears to have made the same calculation as Nixon did in 1968, and as Mondale did in 1984: "my credentials on the national stage are so clear that I can afford to pick someone the public doesn't know."

As a political calculation, that may work. The problem will come when and if voters cease to see McCain-Palin as a team, and ask themselves if they are comfortable with the idea of Palin as a potential commander-in-chief; a role five vice-presidents in the last century had to assume suddenly. If that question moves front and center, voters may decide, Casey Stengel to the contrary, that experience does count.

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