Kevin Drum objects to my argument about experience, claiming that Obama’s experience will be a disadvantage against McCain but Clinton’s would not. I’m not entirely convinced. It’s worth untangling the normative and empirical issues here. The heart of Kevin’s argument is this: “Like it or not, most voters have a sort of vague operational view of experience that means something like “involvement in big league politics.” And on that score, Hillary gets 15 years: 8 years as an activist first lady and 7 years as U.S. senator. Obama, conversely, gets a total of 3 years as U.S. senator.” The problem here is that this seems pretty arbitrary, with the general criteria selected to give Clinton maximum advantage. Do most voters believe that serving as first lady counts as full “involvement in big league politics” but Obama’s longer (and arguably more effective) history as a legislator doesn’t count at all? Maybe, maybe not. The difficult first lady question is particularly crucial, because without full credit Clinton is clearly at a major disadvantage to McCain if experience matters, and my guess is that voters not only won’t give full credit to this but will indeed give less credit to it than I would consider appropriate. At any rate, it’s even less clear that this qualified edge in experience matters very much. Consider not only this year’s Dem race but compare Bill Clinton (zero years big time experience by Kevin’s criteria) against the lengthy resume of George H.W. Bush, or the latter’s son against Al Gore. Either voters evaluate experience in a more nuanced manner than Kevin suggests, or it’s a pretty trivial consideration. Perhaps a little of both, but pols from Henry Clay to Robert Dole might suggest that it’s more the latter. (Or maybe the things that go along with experience in politics make candidates unattractive for other reasons.)
On the normative question, I have a hard time believing that Obama’s somewhat greater inexperience make him much riskier than Clinton. Clinton’s extra Senate term means pretty much nothing, especially since she got the most important question of her tenure wrong. Her first lady experience may be marginally more relevant than Obama’s good state legislative record, community organizing, and work in legal academia, but it’s hard to see that it would compel you to vote for anyone you otherwise wouldn’t. (And this cuts both ways; some Clinton supporters may think I’m underrating the importance of her experience in the White House, but I also don’t think that her husband’s general failure to mobilize support for major progressive reform is much of an indicator of what Hillary Clinton would do as president.) The Presidency is sui generis, and you really are rolling the dice either way (including McCain, even though he’s the most experienced.) None of the major remaining candidates has experience that really sheds much light on how effective they’d be. You pull the lever and takes your chances.