How much experience is necessary?

A key question confronting voters this election concerns who has the experience to be leader of the free world.

Fact is, none of the top candidates has extensive executive experience. Republican John McCain has served in Congress longer than Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama combined. And experience has been an issue in the primary race between Clinton and Obama — since the latter has just three years in the Senate — but it hasn’t seemed to hurt Obama much among Democrats generally.

Will experience be a key issue in the general-election campaign? How important is it? Ben Boychuk and Joel Mathis, the moderators of, weigh in.

Ben Boychuk:

A statesman is the sum of his experiences. So, clearly, job experience matters. It just doesn’t matter much. It isn’t decisive. What sort of experience could prepare a candidate for a surprise attack?

What’s critical is character: courage, honor and, for lack of a better term, “vision.” Nothing really prepares a candidate for the special demands of the presidency. Can a term or two — or four — in the U.S. Senate prepare a legislator for the rigors of the executive branch? Not likely. Woodrow Wilson had a Ph.D. Jimmy Carter was a nuclear engineer. Neither man can be considered among the top-tier presidents. Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was a sportscaster, an actor and, later, a governor. He did just fine over two terms.

Americans shouldn’t worry so much about the resumes of the people seeking the highest office in the land. We should worry more about their understanding of the office they seek — their ambitions, their policies and goals, their appreciation of the limits of the presidency. In light of those traits, which are tough to quantify, “experience” matters little if at all.

Joel Mathis:

Eight years ago, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush had a problem and he knew it. Bush was clearly the Republican establishment’s choice for president, but he lacked federal experience and foreign-policy credentials, especially in comparison with Al Gore. So, to add some ballast and gravitas to the ticket, Bush turned to one of the most experienced hands in the GOP: Dick Cheney.

How you view that choice probably is a good indicator of your stance on the experience issue. If you think Bush is a good president, you may think Cheney’s experience was indispensable to that success. If you join most of the electorate in regarding this presidency as a failure, then it seems that no amount of experience could remedy Bush and Cheney’s bad judgment.

In an ideal world, your preferred candidate has both good judgment and lots of experience. But the remaining candidate with the most federal experience — John McCain — is given to singing in public about bombing Iran. And if experience were the most important factor in deciding the presidency, we would’ve spent recent weeks watching Chris Dodd and Joe Biden battling for the Democratic nomination.

That leaves judgment — a tricky, subjective quality to measure — as the deciding factor. It’s up to voters to use theirs.