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May 27th, 2017

Insight

Experience vs. vision: The presidential paradox

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published August 29, 2016

The analysis you hear everywhere is that this is an extraordinary election, a departure from the ordinary, staking out new ground in American political history.

And in some ways it is: The rhetoric is lower and meaner than anything we've seen since Grover Cleveland was elected in 1884; the candidates are the least appealing since James Buchanan somehow came out on top in 1856; the prospects for meaningful politics after the election the dimmest since Franklin Pierce ascended to the White House in 1852. That's without even taking into account whether one candidate is mentally unstable or the other lacks the stamina to perform the job.

But in a very major way the election of 2016 fits comfortably into a great American framework, one that has guided our politics for three-quarters of a century, perhaps more. Among many other things, this election fits a familiar pattern, a struggle between vision and experience.

Put aside whether you think Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump represent grave threats to the character of the country. The Clinton partisans and much of the commentariat surely believe Trump represents just such a threat, but the Trump adherents and his media supporters feel very much the same way about Clinton. They could, of course, both be right, but that's not the question at hand; many sober people believed that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had dictatorial impulses, just as many intelligent Americans held the conviction that Herbert Hoover was an unfeeling, stubborn ideologue blind to the economic, social and cultural threat in front of his very eyes.

But in some ways this election is the mirror image of the 1960 contest, which pitted an experienced former House member, senator, eight-year vice president and veteran Cold Warrior against a visionary dilettante whose own vice presidential nominee was far savvier and experienced in the ways and folkways of Washington than he was.

Remember, please, that Sen. John F. Kennedy had skipped the vote to censure Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, was described by Eleanor Roosevelt as more profile than courage, and was the son of a controversial businessman whose views about America's role as World War II began were discredited, if not disreputable. Remember, too, that Vice President Richard M. Nixon was a scandal-tarred pugilist whose own president couldn't recall a single instance when his deputy actually contributed positively to the internal White House debate and whose conduct during the Red Scare era of the 1950s was far short of exemplary.

That time the visionary won, and though today we think the Kennedy victory was inevitable and admirable, it was a close-run thing, the margin of victory coming down to dubious election results in Illinois, a state controlled by a Democratic machine with few romantic notions of the importance of letting the public voice be heard.

But a visionary of a different sort -- for Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona certainly had a vision, of a new conservative ascendancy -- was clobbered four years later by the ultimate man of experience, Lyndon B. Johnson, an accomplished former Capitol aide, House member, Senate majority leader, vice president and valiant recipient of the baton tossed to him by a martyred president.

Vision triumphed over experience in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, who personified the second phase of the Goldwater conservative movement, easily triumphed over Jimmy Carter, battle-tested over the economy, energy, the debate over the destiny of the Panama Canal and fallout from the Islamic revolution in Iran.

It happened again a dozen years later. George H.W. Bush had the experienced hand, having run for national office multiple times, served as a House member, Watergate-era chairman of the Republican National Committee, chief U.S. delegate to China, director of Central Intelligence, vice president for eight years and president for four. He lost easily to Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, ridiculed by his rivals as a failed governor of a small state but empowered with a sense of mission, a clear-eyed vision to serve and preserve the middle class and an intoxicating whiff of the new and appealing.

Now move to the 2008 election. Sen. John McCain, former House member, sitting senator, onetime Vietnam prisoner and incontestable (until the Trump era) war hero, clearly was the prohibitive favorite in experience. His opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, had almost no experience; four years earlier he had been a member of the Illinois state Senate. But Obama had vision -- of a nation of hope, bipartisanship and economic recovery -- in surfeit, and as the first black nominee of a major American political party, he became part of the vision of Americans, many of whom believed his election would reflect the better angels of the national character.

All of which brings us to the American choice for Nov. 8.

On the one hand, we have the classic candidate of experience, a groundbreaking first lady who's served as senator and secretary of state, marked for leadership since her Wellesley College days -- long on the resume, maybe short on the romance. On the other we have the classic candidate of vision, who speaks of making the country great again -- long on rhetoric, short on specifics.

Trump's critics view him with horror, but cannot see that Clinton's critics view her with similar deep distaste. It is true that Trump has broken boundaries of civility and comportment. Clinton wants to break boundaries herself. Each side harbors the darkest view of the other, and each side believes that the sort of false objectivity that is the central animating theory of conventional journalism is at heart flawed.

Perhaps this year is a contest testing Americans' adherence to basic principles. Both sides surely think so.

But what sets this election apart are two questions: Has Clinton's experience -- her actual experience, not the mere fact of possessing experience -- itself been corrupting, and therefore disqualifying? And is the substance of Trump's vision -- not the mere fact of his having a vision -- too much a departure from fundamental American values of civility and tolerance, and therefore disqualifying?

These questions may be paired on the page as if they are of equal value or, more to the point, whether the two candidates are morally equivalent. They may not be. But the question at hand is whether the qualms growing out of one are outweighed by the qualms growing out of the other. Sad to say, that's at base what this election is about.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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