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Experience And Instincts

The argument between Sean Wilentz and Cass Sunstein on this website about media support for Barack Obama has, to my mind, obscured two important points about the Democratic race. Wilentz, a Clinton supporter, argues that there is a "delusional style in American punditry" which has led many in the media to support the inexperienced Obama on the strength of his "instincts," just as many in the media supported George W. Bush for the same reasons eight years ago. Sunstein counters with a robust defense of Obama's qualifications.

The first important point that has gotten obscured here is that, in terms of experience, the three leading candidates are in fact surprisingly similar: career lawyers with between four and eight years of experience in the U.S. Senate as of January 2009. In one of the more successful ploys of the campaign, Hillary Clinton has succeeded in spreading the idea that eight years in a ceremonial non-elected role previously held by such political giants as Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon is equivalent to experience in office. It would be nice if reporters did more to ask her about what she actually accomplished as First Lady, given how much weight she has put on these eight years, and about how the experience "tested" her, as she has repeatedly claimed. This is an example, if not of media "delusion," at least of media credulity, and it has strongly favored Clinton rather than Obama.

The second point is that despite Wilentz's quick dismissal of "instincts," there is in fact a very important place for instincts in political office. Instincts, as Wilentz correctly writes, are not a substitute for experience when it comes to formulating policies and managing crises. But being president is not just about formulating policies and managing crises. In large part it is about gauging and choosing and persuading people, about getting policies implemented, about resisting countless pressures. It is in large part about politics. And in all these areas, instincts matter enormously. It is no accident that two of the twentieth century's most successful Democratic presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton—in contrast, say, to Jimmy Carter—had superb political instincts. Without such instincts, it is hard for the most experienced and tested president actually to get anything done. And from this point of view, praising Obama for his instincts is not delusional at all.

--David A. Bell