Commentary Magazine


Wanted: Experience with Failure

Time‘s David von Drehle has a thumbsucker on whether “experience” really matters to presidential candidates. Like almost every other journalist in the age of Obama, he’s a skeptic: 

Presidential experience means a familiarity with the levers and dials of government, knowing how to cajole the Congress, understanding when to rely on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and when to call on the National Security Council — that sort of thing. But bear down even slightly, and the notion of experience is liable to crack and run all over. If knowing the system is so useful, then second-term presidencies should be more successful than first-term. Instead, many Presidents lose effectiveness as they go along.

Von Drehle misses the point.  It should be painfully obvious to any observer of the modern presidency that experience with failure has become the critical test of a successful presidency.  Every president confronts failure.  Big plans don’t work out.  Congress doesn’t cooperate.  Military interventions  cause unanticipated deaths.   Scandal envelops the White House.  This is now the normal course of the presidency.  How you recover from failure ends up becoming the real measuring stick of whether you have a successful presidency.

Reagan had plenty of failure in his life, as governor of California and as a candidate. I think that prepared him to recover pretty quickly from the Iran-Contra scandal, fire Don Regan, and welcome Howard Baker as his chief of staff.  Bill Clinton was voted out of office two years after he won the Arkansas governor’s seat.  This political humiliation probably prepared him for the persistent failures of his presidency.  After the House impeached him, he just kept on moving.

By contrast, Jimmy Carter had very little experience with political failure as Georgia governor.  Once in the White House, failure stalked him, and he seemed to become smaller after each set back. After the Desert One catastrophe, he never seemed to really recover.  Ditto for George H.W. Bush.  Although he had suffered electoral defeats, most of his political life was floating from one plum Republican appointment to the next.  When the economy headed south after the Iraq invasion, he seemed clueless about how to respond.

The inescapable conclusion about George W. Bush’s presidency is that his charmed life as Texas governor didn’t prepare him for the failures that would greet him at the White House.  He waited too long too long to fire Rumsfeld, he didn’t listen to those who called for more troops in Iraq years ago, he did not know how to respond or compromise when his Social Security proposal went nowhere.  Whenever he needed to change tactics, pivot, or regroup, he preferred to just try to tough it out.

Obama’s advocates like to make the meaningless comparison to Lincoln who had little legislative and political experience when he became president.  But surely one of the reasons we admire Lincoln so much is the way he dealt with failure–and there was lots of it—during most of the Civil War.

If supporters of Obama have an honest moment, they should admit that he has even less experience with failure that George W. Bush.  He has never been on the losing end of a Senate battle, or led a legislative campaign that blew up in his face.  Surely that is what awaits him at the White House.  Just ask Hillary Clinton.  We read lots about John McCain’s temper, his indictment as a member of the Keating Five, the fights he has gotten into with Republican colleagues.  But no one ever writes about what Obama looks like when things haven’t gone swimmingly.  That’s because no one knows.

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