09/28/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Un-asked Question is Asked

The other evening, I was having dinner with a conservative friend. Generally, we avoid politics at meals, so as to keep both the yelling and food down, but occasionally it creeps in. It did when he began going on and on (and on) about Barack Obama's "inexperience."

I ate my pasta in polite quiet, though, all the while knowing what I was gnashing to respond. But finally, he said "inexperienced" one too many times.

And so, as warmly as possible, I asked it --

"More inexperienced than George Bush?"

His reaction was unexpected shock. There was total silence. A deer in the headlights look. Then I inquired, "How did that work out?" Still no answer. At last, I politely changed the subject.

Days later, I was talking with another friend, this one liberal, and recounted the conversation. He was aghast. I was admonished to be careful, because of what a Republican "might say" in return, twisting the disastrous presidency of inexperienced George W. Bush to a comparison of Barack Obama.

But my friend missed the point. This wasn't some theoretical case of what "might" be. I'd actually made the comment. And the other person actually didn't have a response. I don't mean "didn't have a good response." Or even an understandable one. I mean - literally no response.

I also realized something else, bigger.

After eight years of the far-Right positioning Democrats, with little regard to the truth, I refuse any longer to define my own personal interests based on what conservatives "might" say. Because we know what they will say. We know it will be critical, sometimes reprehensible and occasionally a knowing-lie. So, I can't concern myself with that. If conservatives want to try to compare Barack Obama to George Bush in any regard, I am more than happy to take that challenge and paint them with reality.

Far-right Republicans will try to turn any Democratic presidential candidate inside out. And I won't accept my terms based on their terms. I know what they "might" say. But more importantly, I know what I will say in return. All it takes is looking around, seeing reality and merely describing it.

When one gives in to what the far-Right "might" say, they win. Not anymore.

So, let's return to that first conversion and break the silence of what wasn't said about George Bush's inexperience when he first-ran for president.

If there's one thing what we've learned after eight years is that most Republicans today have drawn battle lines and support the Administration party line totally, near-blindly. In such a view, George Bush must be wonderful, with few flaws. Yet if that's the case, their "inexperienced" argument becomes their own worst enemy. Because it forces a Republican to acknowledge either that 1) the once-inexperienced George Bush has done a great job, or 2) the once-inexperienced George Bush has done a flawed job.

And I can live with either acknowledgment.

If the former, that means "experience" when running for president is meaningless. But even better, it opens the debate to the Republican record and actual issues, something the McCain campaign has been twisting to avoid. It forces a Republican explanation that the economy is strong, there's no housing crisis, global warming doesn't exist, the $482 billion budget deficit isn't the largest in U.S. history, the job market is booming, gas prices are low, and that the Iraq War is going quite well and near a happy conclusion - just like the war in Afghanistan.

If accepting the latter, however, that's just as good - because it requires a Republican acknowledging that because George Bush was inexperienced when he came to office, he screwed up.

Once the discourse is on these terms, Barack Obama's 14 years of elective experience easily exceeds that of George Bush when he first ran for president. At least Barack Obama has four years in the U.S. Senate, where he serves on the Foreign Relations committee. Add to that 10 years as a state senator in Illinois. Of course, to some, statehouse experience doesn't count - but if so, consider then that George Bush's only experience was as head of a statehouse. Take that from his resume, and Mr. Bush is left with nothing. Six years as state governor of Texas. That's it.

But let's go further and put George Bush's political "experience" in full perspective: the Texas state legislature only meets every two years - and for a mere 140 days. That means in his six years in office, George Bush presided over the legislature for barely one year.

I'll take that "experience" debate any day.

However, there's an even-more important point to the "experience" argument than just that. For the past 32 years, no first-term U.S. president (but one) has had "experience" when elected.

Not George W. Bush. Not Bill Clinton. Not even the conservatives beloved Ronald Reagan. Not Jimmy Carter. None had any foreign policy experience, any federal experience, any experience with the joint chiefs of staff and managing the U.S. Armed Forces. No experience with the CIA, FBI or NSA. Just their home state. (Only the first George Bush did, and he got defeated for re-election.)

Sorry, no matter how big its economy, being California governor has never inherently qualified anybody for Commander-in-Chief. That's one reason you don't remember President George Deukmejian.

And why 37 out of 38 California governors were never seen by the public as experienced enough to become president.

In fact, Ronald Reagan was seen as a wildly scary loose-cannon and huge risk. Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush were all considered deeply inexperienced. Yet, although all of them ran against experienced, sitting presidents - they all won.

John Kennedy, who inspired a generation, was considered extremely inexperienced, which is how Richard Nixon ran against him: the two-time vice-president and foreign policy expert against the elitist kid. And the kid won. Did a nice job, too.

The Republican Talking Point Mantra today likes to make a big deal of "experience" - yet without ever defining it. The implication focuses on the U.S. Senate, and that four years there isn't enough experience for Americans. Pop quiz. How many former U.S. senators served two terms as president in the history of the United States? Extra credit if you can name them all. Take your time.


It was a trick question. The answer is zero. No former U.S. senator has ever completed two full terms as president. That's how much Senate experience matters to Americans.

In fact, the American public has only elected a former-senator to be president to two terms on one, single occasion - but his Senate experience didn't help, since Richard Nixon resigned from office in disgrace. Further, the American public has only elected two presidents directly from the Senate - Warren Harding and John Kennedy.

By those standards, all senators - including John McCain - fail on the enough "experience" scale.

The point is that the American public has shown itself unconcerned with years of "experience" when selecting its president. Especially U.S. Senate experience. The results have been mixed, but then that's where the elected-president's judgment and quality of appointments he makes come in.

Which returns us to that original conversation and the silence that followed. In truth, the issue has never been that George Bush failed because he was inexperienced - it's because he was intellectually incurious, surrounded himself by entrenched ideologues, politicized the government, refused to adapt, and blindly followed paths for Republican gain, not for the nation. He failed because he made incompetent decisions every step of the way. And the American public finally grasped it, which is why George Bush today has a 29 percent approval rating plummeted down from 90 percent.

And addressing that with a Republican takes away the only campaign issue of "inexperience" they are even trying.

All that's left, then, is judgment. Vision. Where one stands on the issues. And ultimately, the ability to put all that together and bring about a better America.

- Like another politician from Illinois, arguably the least-experienced man to become president, who served only one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, and just four terms in the Illinois House. Abraham Lincoln. He did okay, too.

In a perfect world, Barack Obama would be serving his third term in the U.S Senate. In a perfect world, we would be out of Iraq. But Barack Obama has 14 years of elected office, and John McCain has voted with President George Bush 95 percent of the time. We deal with life as it is, the best we can.

No one else can define what are your own personal interests. Conservatives had their say for eight years. They messed up America. Their time has passed. So have their arguments.