Commentary: The value of experience in office
Some years ago, the late New York Times and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Safire wrote a great column comparing politicians to plumbers. It was during one of those periods when (like now) experience had become a dirty word in politics and incumbency was a veritable curse. There was nothing worse you could say about someone than to call him a "career politician" -- just what California Republican gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman called her rival for the office only yesterday. Safire's point was a simple one: Would you hire a plumber who'd never done any plumbing to fix your pipes? Why is politics different? If the plumber messes up, your toilet might flood or, worse, your pipes might burst. If the governor gets it wrong...
Politics looks easy until you try it. This year brings an unprecedented number of newbies, who are, for all intents and purposes, looking to play their first game as a governor or a senator. They come out of business or out of nowhere. Many of them defeated handpicked favorites in late spurts of sudden success and have never faced the sort of intense scrutiny that a general election campaign brings. Watch out.
On her first day as the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in California, Carly Fiorina forgot lesson No. One: Always assume the mike is hot. This shouldn't be a hard one for a woman who did loads of press as the CEO of Hewlett-Packard. But apparently, it was. If you're wondering what Fiorina thinks of Democratic U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, one of those career politicians, just check out the clip. She says what, according to her, "everyone" says: Her hair is "so yesterday." And Whitman, according to Fiorina, should not be doing Sean Hannity, because he's a tough interview. Actually, I think Hannity is a sweetheart, but even if you think he's a tough guy, Fiorina proved that sometimes the toughest interview is the one where no one is even asking you questions.
Every politician makes mistakes. It's almost inevitable when every word you say is being scrutinized in a never-ending game of gotcha. Even the most disciplined guy in the game, President Obama, makes the occasional gaffe. But this year brings a host of candidates who are just not used to life under a high-powered and often distorted microscope. Already, Nikki Haley, who still faces a runoff for the Republican nomination for governor of South Carolina, has been forced to deny rumors of an extramarital affair. Sure, it should be no one's business but her own. But in the wake of the sex scandal involving South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, you can forget about privacy. If it turns out that Haley did have an affair, she'll be hung out to dry for lying. It's not the sex, the gotcha crowd will say, but the lying. But the lessons offered by the plumbing analogy go beyond the business of getting elected. Ultimately, this isn't a game. Ultimately, what matters is not winning but governing. People's lives depend on it. The nation's future depends on it. Politics is difficult; governing is hard. Learning lines, winning debates, scoring points against your rival -- that's tough, but not nearly as tough as getting things done once you're in office. Many former business executives who end up in political office are literally shocked by how little power they have. They're used to giving orders and having people follow them. Politics doesn't work that way. Having years of experience often helps, at least as much as it does in plumbing. And the consequences of inexperience and mistakes can be much more dangerous.
Susan Estrich's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.