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Via Springfield

Why "State Senator" might mean as much as "U.S. Senator" on a presidential candidate's résumé.


Alan Ehrenhalt

Alan is a Governing senior editor.

Here's something I bet you didn't know: If Barack Obama becomes president, he will have spent more time serving as a state legislator (eight years) than anyone who has occupied the White House since Abraham Lincoln. In fact, he will be very close to the all-time record. John Tyler spent nine years in the Virginia House of Delegates. Nobody else has put in anywhere near that much time in a state legislative body.

I sense what you're thinking: That's kind of irrelevant to a modern campaign for president. John McCain, after all, has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 1987; do I really mean to suggest that Barack Obama's eight years in the Illinois Senate (not the most statesman-like institution, as anyone who has seen it will attest) provide the same preparation for the presidency? Well, not exactly. But looking back on my own years covering Congress, and an almost equal number of years following legislatures, I'm drawn to some slightly curmudgeonly comments about what it is that U.S. senators do, and what it is that state legislators do.

A 21st-century U.S. senator is, virtually by the nature of the job, a gadfly. He flits from one issue to another, generally developing little expertise on any of them; devoting a large portion of his day to press conferences and other publicity opportunities; following a daily schedule printed on a 3x5 card that a member of his staff has prepared; depending even more heavily on staff for detailed and time-consuming legislative negotiation that he is too busy to attend; and developing few close relationships with his colleagues, nearly all of whom are as busy as he is. There are exceptions, of course: senators who beat the odds and develop an encyclopedic knowledge of topics that interest them -- but they are the minority. I don't doubt McCain's instinct for global strategy, but a few months ago, when he had to be corrected on his statement that Iran was training al-Qaeda operatives, I wasn't surprised at all. I'm surprised this doesn't happen to senators more often. I can't help thinking of something Barry Goldwater said after a long late-night Senate session in the 1980s: "If this is the world's greatest deliberative body, I'd hate to see the world's worst."

By contrast, what does a state legislator do? At his worst, he is doggedly parochial, someone who tends first and foremost to the interests of a relatively small local constituency. At his best, he keeps all the state's significant issues in mind, and it is possible to do that in a state legislature in a way that is not possible in Washington. During the years that Obama served in Springfield, 1997 to 2005, he was forced to wrestle with the minutiae of health care policy, utility deregulation, transportation funding, school aid and a host of other issues that seem to rank higher than international terrorism as a concern of the average American voter right now. U.S. senators are usually able to dispose of these issues with a quick once-over. State legislators have to consider them largely on their own, without ubiquitous staff guidance, because staffing is not lavish even in the more professional state capitols. They enter into day-to-day bargaining relationships over the details of legislation with colleagues of both parties -- there is no one else to do it for them. At the end of the session, they are likely to know the strengths and quirks of nearly everyone who serves in their chamber.

One thing most state legislators do not do is spend vast proportions of their time raising campaign money. The decline of election-year competition in most legislative districts around the country is not a good thing. But one of its benign side effects is that the majority of legislators hold seats that do not require any substantial fund raising. It's true that the handful of truly competitive elections in closely divided legislatures tend to be highly professionalized events in which millions of dollars can be spent on each side. But in recent years, the bulk of this money has been raised by party leaders and caucuses whose power depends on what happens at the polls. The individual member doesn't spend day after day on the telephone in his office begging donors for contributions.

In the United States Senate, unfortunately, that is exactly what they do. I can't give you a precise figure on the amount of time members spend on activities related to fund-raising. For many senators, I doubt if it ever dips much below a quarter of the legislative day. For some, I suspect it is closer to half.

Whatever the number, those are hours that senators don't devote to the details of legislation, and that most state legislators can if they want to. Some choose not to. But at least they aren't heavily consumed by high-class panhandling. If you think that groveling for money is excellent preparation for the White House, you have a right to your opinion.

Perhaps most important, there is simply more personal contact across the aisle in legislatures than there is in Congress. Legislatures have grown more partisan in the past decade, as all of American politics has, but in most state capitols, the wall of partisan separation is nowhere near as high as it is in Washington. When Obama was in the Illinois Senate, he was obligated to sit down in a small room with his Republican counterparts and work out the details of legislation expanding health care coverage and revising campaign-finance law. He played in a regular poker game in which party and ideology were utterly irrelevant. Maybe there are still poker games in the U.S. Senate. I haven't heard of one lately.

THE LAST THING I want to do is idealize state legislatures. Their members, most of whom have private jobs, are prone to conflicts of interest worse than those that occur in Washington. They are frequently easy for lobbyists to manipulate. And on the whole, I think it is fair to say, most of those who choose to remain at their desk in the state capitol are not as creative or ambitious as the ones who make it further up the ladder to Congress. But for a smart, curious and hard-working young legislator -- for a Barack Obama in the Illinois Senate -- can we be so sure that the skill set picked up over eight years in a state capitol is inferior as presidential preparation to two decades in the pompous, cordoned-off environment of the U.S. Senate?

Of course, there remains the intriguing question of what Obama actually did in the Illinois legislature. For six of his eight years as a state senator, he was a member of the minority party, with limited opportunities to move legislation on his own. As Republicans are fond of pointing out, he had a habit of voting "present" when he didn't want to take a formal position on a bill; all in all, he did this 129 times. One of them was on the issue of partial-birth abortion. Another was on a bill to reduce the penalty for carrying a concealed weapon.

One can craft this into a case for political timidity, but it seems to me a bit of a stretch. Legislators vote present for a variety of reasons: sometimes when they are afraid to take a stand, sometimes when they don't like a piece of legislation but don't want to offend their party leadership. Trying to discern Obama's motivation in all these instances would appear a rather futile enterprise. What's clear is that when Democrats took over the Illinois Senate in 2002, Obama quickly became a major player and a close ally of the Senate President, Emil Jones. Obama sponsored nearly 800 bills during his two years in the majority, notably ones protecting overtime pay for state workers and extending the scope of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

I'm not taking any position at all about the wisdom of Barack Obama's voting choices during his eight years as a legislator, or about the fact that he voted present an unusual number of times. What I'm suggesting is that the record shows he was grappling with most of the domestic policy issues that seem likely to preoccupy the country in the years ahead. It would be misleading -- if not absurd -- to argue that this by itself qualifies him for the White House in 2009. It would be equally misleading to assert that the issues John McCain worked on between 1997 and 2005 render him automatically qualified for the office.

The truth is that assertions about experience are almost always misleading in presidential campaigns. They were misleading when they were employed in the Democratic primaries by Hillary Clinton. She had been a legislator for eight years. Obama had been one -- albeit mostly at a different level of government -- for 12 years. The only way her claim of superior preparation could be taken seriously was to consider her two terms as First Lady to be relevant professional training. That may be true, but it is a claim no one else has ever promulgated. Does having been First Lady make you more ready to give the right answer when the phone rings in the dead of night? Maybe it does. I'm not saying no; I'm saying I don't know, and nobody else does, either.

As for the fall campaign, I am not urging anyone to vote for Barack Obama, or against John McCain, on the issue of experience. What I am suggesting is that experience itself is a slippery commodity to measure -- that there is no easy way to guess what sort of political career is ideal for a president -- and that we would all be better off just listening to what the candidates say and how they say it, and spending a little time looking into what sort of people they are.

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