THE BLOG
05/28/2013 02:37 pm ET | Updated Jul 28, 2013

In Politics, a Prestigious Education and Political Experience can be a Liability

American politics is unlike any other profession in that graduating from an esteemed institution of higher education and having direct experience in politics can actually be a liability rather than an asset. If an applicant for a job in most other fields earned a degree from a prestigious institution and had years of related work experience, it would be foolhardy for the applicant not to emphasize these achievements. This is not the case however when running for public office. When running for public office it is usually customary to deemphasize these achievements. In the upside-down world of politics, the venerated prestigious degree can be a symbol of elitism, and experience in the field can signify that the candidate is a career politician who has lost touch with the needs of the people.

In the last presidential election, both the Democratic party and Republican party nominated candidates with advanced degrees from Harvard University. Mitt Romney holds both an MBA degree and a law degree from Harvard. However, this was not a selling point of his campaign. In fact, Romney tried to tether Barack Obama to Harvard because Obama earned a law degree from the school. As the presumptive GOP nominee, Romney even derided Obama for taking advice from the Harvard faculty lounge and asserted: "We have a president, who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard, perhaps."

For Obama, his Harvard degree has been a curse throughout his political career. In 2000, state senator Barack Obama challenged U.S. Representative Bobby Rush in his bid for reelection in the Democratic Primary. Rush successfully branded Obama as an elitist, intoning: "Barack Obama went to Harvard and became an educated fool." The strategy worked. Obama lost that race by 31 percentage points.

Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, learned what a liability his Ivy League education could be in his first political campaign. Bush has a B.A. from Yale University and an MBA from the Harvard Business School. In 1978, Bush was the Republican nominee for an open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (the West Texas-based 19th congressional district). Bush's Democratic opponent, Kent Hance, taunted Bush for his educational achievements. Hance called Bush: "Not a real Texan," and asserted that: "Yale and Harvard don't prepare you as well for running for the 19th Congressional District as Texas Tech [Hance's alma mater] does." Hance won that race.

For the American electorate, when it comes to electing public officials, political experience is at best a secondary or tertiary concern, and at worst a liability. It is eclipsed by charisma, likeability and political ideology. In 1976, Jimmy Carter, who had served for just four years in the Georgia Senate and one four-year term as governor of his native Georgia, defeated President Gerald R. Ford who had a redoubtable political resume. Ford served for almost 25 years as a member of U.S. Congress, eight years as House Minority Leader, approximately nine months as Vice President, and more than two years as president. Ironically, Ford's significant political experience actually became a liability as Carter styled him as an establishment politician. Carter succeeded in running as an outsider "untainted" by politics.

In the 2008 contest for the Democratic nomination, the most experienced candidates ended up as bottom-feeders, being forced to drop out of the race without winning a single state. These politicians included U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) who had 35 years of U.S. Senate experience including stints chairing the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) who had been in the U.S. Congress since 1975, and who chaired two Senate Committees and who served as co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who had served in the U.S. Congress as U.S. Energy Secretary, and served as the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Ironically, the winner of that race was Barack Obama, a first-term U.S. Senator whose prior elective experience included just eight years serving in the Illinois General Assembly (the state Senate). This outsider appeal worked to his advantage again in the general election when he trounced U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) by painting him as indigenous to the political arena.

Along these same lines, when a presidential campaign goes through the rigorous process of choosing a Vice Presidential nominee, experience is rarely a defining issue. In many cases, candidates with little political experience leapfrog to the top of the pack over seasoned political veterans. In 1968, Republican Richard M. Nixon selected Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, who had only served in that position for about a year and a half. Prior to that, Agnew served as a Baltimore County Executive. In 1984, Democrat Walter Mondale selected Geraldine Ferraro who was only serving in her fourth term in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry selected John Edwards, a freshman U.S. Senator from North Carolina with no discernable prior political experience. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain chose as his Vice Presidential running mate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin whose political resume is arguably even thinner than Mr. Obama's. Palin was serving just her second year as the chief executive of the fourth least populated state in the U.S., which has less than 700,000 inhabitants. Prior to that, Palin was Mayor of Wasilla, Alaska where she governed less than 10,000 constituents.

Politics is a curious, inimitable, odd profession in that a degree from a prestigious institution and direct political experience can actually be a liability one has to strategize to overcome. So if you are an aspiring politician and you happened to have graduated from a prestigious educational institution, don't emphasize it or you will risk being labeled an elitist. Likewise, if you have lots of political experience, don't emphasize this either, as you will be labeled an out-of-touch career politician.