"I was born into a middle-class family in the middle of the country in the middle of the last century," Hillary Clinton told several hundred people--a large crowd--in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the first Sunday in May. It was a lovely line, and for once her voice, a flat Midwestern twang that sometimes twinges harsh, seemed just right. The crowd, which included a disproportionate number of mothers who had brought their daughters, was very much at ease with the Senator as she managed to convey her usual A-student policy virtuosity in an informal, accessible way. "Wouldn't it be great to have a President who can speak for an hour without notes?" former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, a presidential candidate turned Clinton supporter, told the next crowd, assembled in Red Oak despite biblical rains. It was a classic reaction to a Clinton performance. To be sure, other candidates can go noteless for an hour or more--some, like Joe Biden, famously so--but Clinton's flagrant competence is her dominant personality trait. And, sad to say, it may have very little to do with whether she wins the Democratic nomination.
"I voted for you for Senate when I was living in New York. Why should I vote for you for President?" a young woman named Hillary Sinn asked in Council Bluffs. The candidate proceeded to unreel her résumé--the years of advocacy for children; the years working on education policy when "Bill" was Governor of Arkansas; the health-care, uh, experience in "Bill's" first term as President; the eight years in the White House; the 82 countries visited; the fact that she was "running as a woman but not only as a woman"; that she'd had extensive experience working across party lines in the Senate. "It was the experience that came through," Sinn said later when I asked if she was satisfied with the answer. "I'm feeling really excited about her. She seems incredibly effective."
And Clinton had failed to mention what may be her most important qualification for the job, a knowledge of national-security issues unmatched in the Democratic field. Yes, several other Dems--Biden, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson--can match her on foreign policy, but Clinton's years on the Armed Services Committee have been well spent. I once asked a well-known general if there were any Democrats running for President who understood the way military leaders think, and he said, "You mean, aside from Hillary?"
Asked in Red Oak how she would disengage from Iraq, she gave a precise, nuanced and up-to-the-minute answer: Withdraw the troops from the areas of sectarian conflict like Baghdad, keep a small force fighting al-Qaeda in al-Anbar province, move some troops to the Turkish border, protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and other civilian facilities, maintain a special-operations capability. And then, instead of the usual lip service to training Iraqi forces, she said, "We may also leave some forces to help train the Iraqis if there seems a chance this Iraqi government will get any better. But I'm doubtful about that." Contrast that with, say, John Edwards, who seemed utterly lost when I asked him a similar question a few weeks ago, finally settling on the opposite of Clinton's position. "You'd probably have to leave combat troops in the areas where combat was the greatest," he said.
Clinton's national-security expertise should be no small advantage in an election that may well take place in the midst of a war. But it is likely to take a backseat to a more prominent question about experience--whether eight years as First Lady qualifies one to be President of the United States. And to a more cosmic experience-related question than that: whether, after 20 years of Bushes and Clintons in the White House, we want to keep trading our most precious office back and forth between these two extremely strange families. In fact, it's entirely possible that "experience" may be more of a disadvantage than an advantage in 2008.
There have been six elections in which control of the presidency has switched parties during the television age. In five of those six, starting with John F. Kennedy's victory over Richard Nixon in 1960, the less experienced candidate won. The other four were: Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan over Carter in 1980, Bill Clinton over Bush the Elder in 1992, Bush the Younger over Al Gore in 2000. The one exception to the rule was a toss-up: Nixon and Hubert Humphrey had similar levels of experience in 1968. This sort of pattern may have deep significance. It may mean that when Americans want change, they want a powerful fresh gust of it. Or it may mean nothing at all in wartime. "I just don't know. I just don't know," said Sinn, who remained undecided. She had seen Obama a month earlier and had been really excited by him too. "She's really effective, but I could still vote for Barack."