Experience that Counts

12/03/2007 11:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As Senator Obama surges in Iowa, we are told that the split among the voters is about a supposed struggle between "experience" - in which case they are told Hillary Clinton is their candidate - or change, in which case Obama is the one they are looking for. This is no surprise as the American political discourse has grown to be bipolar in the sense that each time there is a debate between rivals or ideas, we are told that the debate is about a supposed struggle between two dumbed-down simple choices, both of which are equally important, each rival has a legitimate claim on one of the two factors, and hence the selection process presents a balanced trade-off. We saw an example of such neat choices presented at a recent democratic debate where Wolf Blitzer tried to force candidates to choose between idealism or realism, human rights or civil liberties, and economic growth or renewable energy with the false underlying assumption that we have to give up one to obtain the other. But a thorough analysis of the change v. experience debate shows that on both factors, Obama is simply a better candidate than Hillary Clinton.

Starting with experience, we are told that experience is one of the only two factors that matter in this election, and Hillary Clinton is the one with the most legitimate claim on that factor. And yet, very few are asking what kind of experience counts as relevant or why is experience even important. If experience is about who is the oldest, then Paul and Gravel are the most experienced. If experience is about who has been in public office longer, Senator Obama has in fact been in public office six years longer than Senator Clinton. It is true that she has been the spouse of an elected politician longer than everyone else, but since when do we count being a first lady as policy experience? Does Laura Bush have more experience now than Bill Clinton did when he became president? And while Hillary was assigned to undertake a few tasks in the 90s, the most important one of which was to bring about universal healthcare, she failed, even though the democrats controlled not only the White House but also both the House and the Senate. Furthermore, it was in part her divisiveness that energized the republicans to take control of the House and Senate in 1994.

Despite the fact that there is no definition for experience that would make Hillary the one with the most of it in this election, she has also failed to articulate why "experience" matters. Experience only counts when it leads to sound judgment. Before Cheney became Vice President, he had already served in three presidential administrations and the House of Representatives. Similarly, the beginning of Rumsfeld's public experience dates back to 1954. And yet, experience did not lead either one to develop the sound judgment necessary to refrain from pushing for the Iraq war. Similarly, regardless of how one defines experience, Hillary's didn't lead her to have the judgment to oppose the war, although if she had read the National Intelligence Estimate before her vote - which she did not - she would have seen that there was no evidence that Saddam possessed WMDs. In fact, when voting for the war resolution, she stated on the Senate floor that "my decision is influenced by my eight years of experience ... in the White House." Not only being the first lady cannot possibly be considered relevant experience, her "experience" also didn't stop her from voting for another hawkish resolution on Iran, which calls its army terrorist, without understanding the impact of that vote on the pro-western democracy movement within Iran. We are looking for a leader who can reach out and start serious diplomatic efforts with non-friendly leaders. But by voting for the legislation, Senator Clinton has managed to squander the possibility of ever having a chance of being taken seriously in diplomacy with the Iranian regime. They saw how she voted.

Finally, the main flaw in the argument of those who support Hillary for "experience" is that they act as if the nation is like a bus and we are looking for a driver, or presidency is an assembly line job for which one needs technical "on the job training." The fact is that the presidency is not a one-person job. Every president has an extensive team of experts on various matters and president, his cabinet and hundreds of policy advisors make policies together and in collaboration with Congress. In that sense, the main role of the president is to chart a course and set a vision, which requires more understanding and sound judgment than length of experience or some technical training.

For one, Obama has served in public office longer than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. In addition, as opposed to Clinton's experience, Obama's led him to sound judgment. During his time in the Illinois Senate, he led democrats and republicans to pass the most important ethics reform in more than twenty-five years. And it was his experience that led him to strongly oppose the Iraq war from the start - again as opposed to Edwards or Clinton - even though it was a very risky and unpopular position to take and one that even Bill Clinton didn't support despite his eight years of experience as president. Obama's experience led him in 2002 to do what was right and express his view on Iraq that "I don't oppose war in all circumstances... but what I do oppose is a dumb war."

But despite Senator Clinton's limited - and failing - policy experience, she recently had the audacity to criticize Senator Obama for saying that his most important foreign policy experience was his life for four years in Indonesia. The whole value of foreign policy experience is not rooted in the number of Saudi Kings or Musharrafs one has held hands with, but ultimately, an extensive knowledge of how we are viewed around the world through the eyes of other peoples. Senator Clinton's experience in foreign policy was limited to flying to countries, getting picked up at airports and dining with officials in mansions, none of which involved meaningful contact with ordinary people and development of a thorough understanding of the cultures in those countries.

But not only has Senator Obama had extensive diplomatic experience, he also lived in Indonesia.

Most people underestimate the tremendous value that such experience will have for our next president. There are a lot of people within the State Department who are considered Iran policy "experts," but most of them have never been to Iran. While they may understand the general political structure in Iran, through my seventeen years of life in Tehran, I learned things about the Iranian society that no experts could have learned by talking to a high level Iranian leader. For instance, I learned about the nature of oppression within Iran when I saw my all-boys elementary school officials round up kids whose hair was longer than an inch and shave a "+" sign on their head as punishment for having been influenced by western culture, boys (including myself) and girls get arrested for being on a date out of marriage and religious police tell women to wipe off their make-up or cover their hair and round up those who do not comply. I also learned about the way in which teachers were forced to teach anti-American propaganda in schools. Obama has had a similar inside look at the way in which one's view toward the United States develops in Indonesia - a country with the largest Muslim population in the world - and that experience will lead him to be conscious of the impact of our foreign policy on America's image abroad.

There are other flaws in looking at the election as an isolated battle between change and experience. One is that as the most recent Washington Post/ABC news poll showed, change and new direction are simply more important to Iowans (55%) than conventional experience (33%). Another driving factor is the fact that Clinton currently is going through the cycle with the highest negative (people who say they would never vote for her) than any other candidate, and this makes her not only the most polarizing but also the one who is likely to energize the republicans the most to come out to defeat her or take back Congress. These two factors are also why in the same poll, Obama is tied with Clinton among women in Iowa, but winning independents by a margin of 2-to-1 and men by a margin of 1.5-to-1, has pulled ahead of Clinton for the first time by 3% according to Des Moines Register's new Iowa Poll and is likely to defeat all of the republicans candidates nationally according to the recent Zogby poll while Senator Clinton is trailing behind five of those republicans.

A review all of all of these factors - as opposed to just change and non-defined "experience" - should lead us to reach one conclusion, and that is the fact that Obama is simply the best choice for our party and the country, both in terms of the value of his experience and his electability.