Experience and Change Are Not Mutually Exclusive

One of the most vigorous debates in the Democratic primaries pits “experience” against “change.” Hillary Clinton is cast as bringing experience, while Barack Obama is painted as the hope for change.  And now, since much of country is begging for major change—especially given the huge dissatisfaction with the Bush administration—all the candidates are trying to position themselves as agents of change. But this debate sets up a false dichotomy.

Change and experience are not mutually exclusive. The U.S. government is a highly complex human system comprised of well worn ways in which thousands of people are used to getting their goals accomplished. Although a new President can bring in some of his/her own staff and appointments, the new person is still likely still going to have to contend with not only Congress but numerous other related groups that are not going to immediately work differently just because the White House has a new occupant.

In fact, when a large company is struggling, the board does not bring in just anybody new off the street. Frequently, they bring in highly experienced executives with special talent in turnaround situations. 

As a case in point, a whole slew of new Democratic congresspeople were elected a year ago, including a new Speaker of the House. Has much changed? A lot of people want to blame the failure to change on one party or another, or on the corruption of Congress, but I suspect that in reality transforming a complex human system like the U.S. government takes a lot more than swapping out a few of the players.

As a second sanity check, take a look at this list of presidents: Washington, J. Adams, Jefferson, Taylor, Grant, Arthur, Cleveland, T. Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge, Hoover, F. Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and G. W. Bush. This is the set of “Washington outsiders” (defined as those Presidents elected without experience in congress). Now, exclude George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, since they were Founding Fathers and had as much experience as anyone in how the newly formed government worked. Does the resulting list look like all the best agents of change?

It may well be that the only people who can meaningfully create change are ones with experience in how to work the political system. History has shown (including Hillary Clinton’s own mishaps with health care reform as a new First Lady) that a new adminstration still has to learn the ropes. I would think it makes sense to bring in someone who is already past the learning curve.

Of course, electing the first woman or the first black man as President is going to bring change regardless. 

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