Experience is more important than charisma

Voting for any candidate at any level requires a leap of faith and that is particularly the case in a presidential election, even when one has a strong party affiliation. Quite often, the most appropriate guide is the old adage that the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.

That seems especially cogent in a primary selection process that inevitably has become focused on gender against race, experience against fledgling, political noblesse oblige against upstart rock-star attraction. It is unfortunately — or, fortunately, depending on one’s disposition — what the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination has come down to.

There are so many negatives on both sides in what is now a two-person contest it would take a year to enumerate them. But for the more discerning voter, the brevity of Barack Obama’s resume leads the list. There is little on it that would encourage voters to believe that he is at this stage of his career ready for that lofty position. A law degree, a stint in the Illinois legislature and a short stay so far in the U.S. Senate are acceptable, but hardly impressive in a world that requires the American president to be much more than that. The Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and, in some ways, Bill Clinton administrations are good examples.

Is the senator glamorous? You bet. Is he bright and articulate? You bet. Can he whip up a crowd? Certainly. Charisma is in no short supply here. But at 46, and with no military or discernible foreign experience, no sense of how to deal with domestic problems other than a few years in social practice in Chicago, is he ready for the most important assignment on the globe?

John F. Kennedy, the man to whom he is now being compared, wasn’t, even with twice the time in grade in the House and Senate and a distinguished war record. He could wring virtually nothing from a recalcitrant Congress where his party held the majority. It took his ultra-savvy successor, Lyndon Johnson, to accomplish that. Had Johnson abandoned the Kennedy Vietnam policy, as he should have, he would have been among the most respected of the nation’s chief executives.

So other than eloquent words and promises of change, it is difficult to know where Obama stands on much of anything. The “change” theme is as recurring in these campaigns as the flu. What exactly does it mean? When, it seems fair to ask, does change suddenly become what other people want after you have been in office a few months? It seems easy to talk about altering the way the country works, but doing that is another matter. It takes years of on-the-job training to understand how to buck the twin tigers of an entrenched bureaucracy and a partisan legislature to succeed in anything in this city. Besides, some things don’t need to be fixed. They aren’t broken.

In contrast, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been there and done that, won some and lost some. She has put in her time in grade, and whatever her detractors find wrong with her, the one thing that is indisputable is her complete understanding of what the job entails. Wide-eyed “what do I do now?” befuddlement just isn’t in her nature. If voters fear that she will not be her own person, that her former-president husband will pull the strings, they really haven’t been paying attention. She is as tough as nails and as bright as anyone on the political scene. Besides, he owes her much more than she owes him.

The odds now are that the likely Republican opponent will be John McCain, a military hero and veteran of wars from Vietnam to the U.S. Senate, where he has spent the last 20 years, not always playing follow the leader. His experience in foreign, domestic and military matters is indisputable and in sharp contrast to Obama’s. The Arizonan will be difficult for the thinking voter to turn down despite the burden of an unpopular GOP predecessor and a shaky economy.

So who better for the Democrats to pick to counter this: The devil they know or the devil they really don’t? Will there be another time for Obama? There is no doubt. But this really isn’t it. As my grandfather used to say, be careful about buying a pig in a poke.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)