Opinion: Should Barack Obama play the Springfield card?

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We noted in an earlier post that for John McCain, a silver lining in the new L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll that put Barack Obama solidly ahead in their presidential race was voter attitudes about which candidate has the ‘right experience’ to serve in the Oval Office.

McCain led Obama by 20 percentage points on this question (No. 11 on this chart).

The presumptive GOP nominee and his advisors don’t need a survey to be persuaded that they enjoy a big edge on the experience issue and that the more they are able to plant seeds of doubt about Obama’s seasoning, the more likely McCain can overcome the prevailing political winds and win the White House.

But on Tuesday, a guest column appeared in Newsweek disputing what has been taken as a given in the campaign: McCain’s experience advantage. It argues, provocatively, that the eight years Obama served in the Illinois state legislature before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 2004 might trump McCain’s 22 years as a senator from Arizona.


The case is made by Alan Ehrenhalt, executive editor of Governing magazine, which trains its eyes on state and local government (and, not surprisingly, has a rather small and specialized circulation).

Ehrenhalt concedes that, at first blush, state legislative experience would strike most Americans as a ‘kind of irrelevant’ preparation for the presidency. But he then writes that ‘looking back on quite a few 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.’

Observations that follow include:

‘Twenty-first century U.S. senators are, virtually by the nature of the job, gadflies. They flit from one issue to another, generally developing little expertise on any of them; devote a large portion of their day to press conferences and other publicity opportunities; follow a daily schedule printed on a 3x5 card that a member of their staff has prepared; depend even more heavily on staff for detailed and time-consuming legislative negotiation that they are too busy to attend...’ ‘By contrast, what do state legislators do? ... At their best, they keep all the state’s significant issues in mind; 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, 1997-2005, he was forced to wrestle with the minutiae of healthcare policy, utility deregulation, transportation funding, school aid, and a host of other issues that are vitally important to America’s coming years, but that U.S. senators are usually able to dispose of with a quick once-over. State legislators have to do this largely on their own, without ubiquitous staff guidance, because staffing is not lavish even in the more professional state capitols.’ ’...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? I seriously doubt it.’

So there.

We seriously doubt the Obama campaign is going to roll out ads anytime soon that tout Obama’s time in Springfield quite like Ehrenhalt does. But his column makes for an intriguing read, nonetheless.

-- Don Frederick