We're going to hear a lot about the experience gap in this campaign. There's no denying that Barack Obama's resume looks pretty thin stacked up next to John McCain's; the Illinois senator has been on the national political scene for only a few years. This will make it hard for Obama to make the obvious point that McCain is a trifle elderly for the Oval Office. It's too easy for McCain to shoot back with Ronald Reagan's famous rejoinder to the age question, "I refuse to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
On the other hand, Obama hardly needs to bring up McCain's age. Thanks to the high-definition TV revolution, we can all see the ravages time has wrought on McCain: the wrinkles, the facial scars from his battle with melanoma, and the arthritis that has crippled his arms and legs. Watched on a regular station, McCain still looks vital and smooth. On my high-definition channels, however, he looks like he has one foot in the grave. Polls show that voters do think that age is a handicap in a president, and they are right to think this: The presidency is a grueling position from which even relative young-uns such as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have emerged looking prematurely ancient. It's reasonable to wonder if McCain's body is up to the task, particularly considering the abuse it took in Vietnam -- and the fact that his father died of a heart attack at the age of 70.
Voters also, of course, say that they care about experience, and McCain has a lot of that, having served on prestigious Senate committees such as Commerce and Armed Services. His name is on the famous, if also atrocious, McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that passed in 2002. He will come into the race able to boast about seeing the country through multiple crises. Obama, by contrast, can point to only a few minor bills that bear his fingerprints.
That said, I'm not sure voters should care. The Senate is not a particularly good training ground for a presidential career. Its titans are masters of securing consensus from a few dozen other senators and some key players in the House. It is a place of subtle power plays and the political long game. The president, on the other hand, must be able to manage the vast federal executive branch, directly marshal voter support for his initiatives and take full and personal responsibility for any projects that fail. One can make a convincing argument that the longer a politician spends as a legislator, the less qualified he becomes for the office of commander in chief.
More to the point, no job really qualifies you to run the world's only remaining superpower; there's a vast amount that simply must be learned by doing. And in that, Obama actually has an experience advantage -- or, at least, he will. McCain's age means there is a good chance that he simply won't be healthy enough for a second term, meaning that we'll have to start over in 2012 with another round of on-the-job training. And Obama will probably come into office with a fairly commanding lead from voters thoroughly disgusted with the current Republican administration, which will give him quite a lot of breathing room while he masters the not-so-gentle art of ramming bills through Congress. Indeed, in the end, McCain's biggest problem is not his age; it's the "R" after his name.
Megan McArdle is an associate editor and blogger at the Atlantic.
I basically agree with you, Megan. Being president isn't like being the world's most powerful senator. It's a different job with its own learning curve. And though straight competency matters, ideas matter even more. McCain frequently argues that he's damn near the world's most experienced advocate of invading Iraq, but it's not clear whether that's the kind of experience we really want in the White House.
This, in fact, is McCain's great weakness: his ideas. At a time when the majority of the country wants the Iraq war brought to a swift close, he's repeatedly stated his comfort with its continued prosecution. At a time when nearly 50 million Americans are without health insurance and millions more are worried about keeping what they have, he's put forward a healthcare plan that tries to control costs by shifting more medical risk and financial vulnerability to workers. This is a misread of the current political moment, at best. We're not facing down towering tax rates or fighting the Cold War. The problems have changed, but his solutions have remained stuck in place. Thus, his speeches have a tendency to read like the political equivalent of leg warmers and Rubik's cubes. You want to sit the poor guy down and explain that it's not the 1980s anymore.
Obama's got a different problem: his political aesthetic. The fact that more than 10% of the country believes he's a Muslim just points to the likelihood that a substantially larger part of the country believes there's some unsettling "other" about him. That comes out in insinuations about his religion, speculation that his parents were communists, allegations about his patriotism, allegations about his wife's patriotism, questions about whether he secretly shares his former pastor's "radical black theology," controversy about whether he wears an American flag lapel pin (an accessory that is to patriotism what presenting your wife with a 5-cent gum ball is to love) and so on. These smears may be false, but they play on something real: Obama seems different, and in politics, different is dangerous.
Insofar as age matters for the two candidates, it's less about how old they are and more about how old they were. As I argued in a Times Op-Ed article a few weeks ago, Obama and McCain saw their politician consciousness formed in very different eras. McCain grew up in the post-World War II moment, came of age during the Cold War, and has a tendency to look for transcendental threats and ascribe them to state actors. Obama, by contrast, was watching cartoons during the 1960s and saw the Soviet Union fall before he graduated from law school. He often seems confused by the culture wars and dismissive of Boomer-era battles (like that over his occasional associate, former Weatherman Bill Ayers). It's a trait that appeals to younger voters like myself. However, that could lead him to misread the passions and latent angers in the electorate come the fall.
Ezra Klein is an associate editor at the American Prospect. He blogs at EzraKlein.com.