What Do Candidates Mean When They Talk About "Experience?"

 /  Oct. 25, 2015, 7:35 p.m.


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Before announcing his presidential run, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore said, “I'll put my background and experience against anyone in the field.” Career politicians and non-establishment candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson tout their experience and criticize others for a lack of it. However, the men and women running for president have never held America’s highest public office; properly speaking, none of them has been on the job. The question then becomes: do any of them have “experience”? And furthermore, do their claims to experience qualify them for the presidency?

If experience were defined in terms of proximity to the presidential office, Hillary Clinton would undoubtedly be the most qualified. Clinton served as First Lady from 1993 to 2001 during her husband Bill’s presidency, as New York’s junior senator in the United States Senate from 2001 to 2009, and as President Obama’s secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. As First Lady and as secretary of state, Clinton had unique insight into the President’s intentions and thoughts. No other current candidate can claim the same.

Clinton also has an extensive political record in addition to her appointed and elected positions. She was the leader of  Wellesley College’s Young Republicans, became an early supporter of the children’s rights movement, and sponsored universal health care legislation during her husband’s first presidential term. Her leadership in these instances demonstrates not only her ambition and dedication, but also her keen awareness of some of the country’s most urgent issues. This foresight is essential to determining a feasible agenda for a presidential administration.

What her opponents suggest taint her experience, however, are her failures. Clinton’s universal health care initiative failed to receive congressional Democrats’ supportthe attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi resulted in the deaths of four American diplomats, and this year’s email scandal has damaged her public credibility. These events invite criticism of Clinton’s ability to bridge divisions among people, whether these people are the general public or Congress. Due to the amount of media attention directed toward such issues, these developments often overshadow or call into question Clinton’s accomplishments. For Clinton, then, her experience is a double-edged sword: it shows both her achievements and her shortcomings.

Clinton may have served in high-profile positions at the national level, but she has never served as the chief executive of her jurisdiction. After a brief stint as Florida’s secretary of commerce between 1987 and 1988, Jeb Bush served as Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007. As chief executive of the state, Bush and his administration cut taxes each year, created 1.3 million jobs, and implemented school-voucher programs. The total tax cuts amounted to about $19 billion, which contributed to the privatization of state jobs.

As one of the many gubernatorial candidates running for president, Bush has experience serving as the top public official in a state and has a record spanning two terms to showcase. Though he has yet to serve at the national level, his background as the head of the state’s executive branch – arguably a corollary to the presidency proves he is capable of balancing his aims with those of the legislative and judicial branches. Bush has worked directly with his constituents without the barrier of performing his duties outside of the state as, for instance, a senator would have to do. As Bush pursues the presidential office, he will have to be cognizant of a more heterogeneous public from red, blue, and purple states than he encountered in the purple (though often red-leaning) state of Florida.

Bush has had his fair share of failures as well. Florida’s unemployment rate was 3.4% when he left office but it, perhaps due to the economic policies his administration approved, began to rise soon after his final term and now stands at 5.6%. Florida’s Supreme Court also struck down Bush’s school voucher program, which proposed using public funds to send students who previously attended failing schools to private schools. Similarly to that of Clinton, Bush’s extensive public service record is imperfect; thus it does not unconditionally qualify him to serve as president.

It is perhaps most challenging to evaluate the experience and qualifications of a candidate who has never held public office. Candidates like Donald Trump cannot claim the political successes and challenges that senators and governors have encountered. Trump does not have prior knowledge of constituents’ concerns at the local, state, or federal levels. Additionally, having been involved in private business for the entirety of his career, he has no experience directing his skills toward a group of stakeholders beyond clients, partners, shareholders, and himself.

Trump, as he sees it, has much of which to boast. The Trump Organization’s revenue was about $605 billion in 2014, with a profit between $275 and $325 million. His popularity as a reality star on television programs like The Apprentice have made him a household name. With a net worth of about $4 billion, Trump has publicized a self-made billionaire image to identify himself among his supporters as a hardworking American who believes in the power of individual responsibility.

Trump also has had his share of failures in his area of expertise. Every Trump casino in Atlantic City faced bankruptcy – the Trump Taj Mahal in 1991 and the the Trump Plaza in 1992. In 1995, his business reorganized as Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, but it was eventually forced to refinance a $1.9 billion debt. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2004 as a single entity and was renamed as Trump Entertainment. In 2009, Trump filed for bankruptcy again following the onset of the Great Recession and once more in 2014 when, after Trump sued the company, a restructuring plan left the investor Carl Icahn to salvage only the Trump Taj Mahal but with a significantly reduced debt.

Despite having never held public office, Trump has publicized his political views, which are often inconsistent. In 1999, Trump shared his pro-choice stance on abortion but insisted at the first Republican primary debate in August that he is pro-life and has “evolved on many issues over the years.” Trump, once a Democrat, supported the legalization of drugs and a 14.25 percent tax increase on the wealthy. He also claimed to have opposed the Iraq War, which began in March 2003. While this is true, he did not express his opposition until 2004.

Clinton, Bush, and Trump have all had varying levels and types of experience. What is common among their records, though, is leadership. These three candidates, as well as the other major candidates, have all served as leaders in some capacity.

The Office of the President of the United States is not like any other leadership position, however. Its responsibilities are uniquely demanding. Press and staff constantly monitor every action and decision. The press and public meticulously scrutinize every word and response. The president seeks respect and cooperation from fellow world leaders, whether from an ally or from a historically combative rival. Unlike state executives and CEOs, the president must handle the consequences of choices that affect an entire nation. Furthermore, as the world’s superpower, America’s decisions have global repercussions. There is greater responsibility and accountability in this position than in any of the other roles in which the candidates have served.

As with any other position, some candidates are more qualified than others. The electorate must determine who is the best fit for the job: whichever candidate the voters believe they can trust and is best prepared for the role will ultimately prevail.

There exists no list of required prior experience for the president. Experience, though, should not be the sole defining criterion for a candidate’s presidential capability. Charisma, compassion, dedication, eloquence, knowledge, and motive are also key indicators of a candidate’s potential. Vision, in particular, is crucial because it describes a candidate’s and his or her supporters’ ideal America. The nation will decide which candidate best embodies these criteria, among others, on Election Day. The benefit of experience, however, is that it offers an accessible record of an individual’s efficacy. As such, it is a useful predictor of a candidate’s fit for the role of president. Ultimately, though, experience is a point of reference: it is but one metric by which voters may evaluate a future president’s qualifications. The chosen candidate’s actual success as president is another story.

The image of Jeb Bush was taken by the World Affairs Council. The original image can be found here. The image of Hillary Clinton was taken by the US Embassy. The original image can be found here.  


Victoria Cattelona


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