Been There, Done That

Experience, climate, and the Democratic nomination

Despite the obligatory stump-speech mentions of renewable energy and “green-collar” jobs, the two remaining contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination don’t argue much about global warming. Their platforms for promoting alterative fuels and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions are very similar.

But that didn’t stop Greenwire, an environment-oriented newswire, from doing something that a lot of the press has been unwilling or unable to do: press Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on climate change and flesh out differences where there appear to be none. It took two articles this week (as we shall see, a clever tactic) to pull it off, but reporter Darren Samuelsohn was able to home in on what might seem an obvious discrepancy-experience-to explore the candidates’ ability to lead global diplomacy on climate.

It was not entirely clear at first that Samuelsohn would be able to crack the nut, and his (or his editors’) news judgment even seemed a little suspect. On Monday, Greenwire published the first of Samuelsohn’s articles. It was entirely Obama-centric and basically let his environment adviser, Dan Esty, promote the idea that the Illinois senator would get more “running room” and “stand out in diplomatic circles compared to his presidential rivals.” Obama’s “fresh perspective” sets him apart from the “echoes of the past” that Clinton would bring to the table, Esty said. Samuelsohn tried to contact the Clinton and McCain camps for fair comment and (as has become typical for reporters) they didn’t reply. Greenwire ran with it anyway, and the lopsided article seemed a bit irresponsible at first read, but that bold decision had a wonderful result-it drew Clinton out of the woodwork.

Twenty-four hours later, on Tuesday morning, Samuelsohn ran a second, almost mirror-image article responding to the first one, with Neera Tanden, Clinton’s campaign policy director, saying that Esty’s remarks made “very little sense.” Tanden’s argument for the New York senator? “She will be most able to push the ball forward, really starting on day one, because of her experience on these issues and the respect she commands from world leaders right now … Frankly, Senator Obama is an unknown quantity and untested on the international stage.”

Of course, there’s not a lot of substance behind either Esty and Tanden’s arguments, but three cheers to Greenwire for at least prodding them into a tussle about an important, but usually uncontested campaign issue. Reporters need to get tough with candidates, stressing that if a campaign doesn’t return calls by press time, they will run with whatever they have, including what the other side says. Furthermore, despite the (literally) he said/she said nature of his two articles, Samuelsohn keyed in on what could amount to the only meaningful difference between Obama and Clinton’s approaches to an international climate treaty.

The current issue of Time magazine has an interesting two-part spread on “The Science of Experience.” To be sure, some of the research is very unfinished and most scientists seem to have studied other areas of experience (like medical, athletic, etc.) and not its role in presidential politics directly. Nonetheless, Time owns up to science’s limitations and thus the articles provide some intriguing food for thought. In one piece, David von Drehle explores presidential experience from a historical perspective. A lack of experience hurt John F. Kennedy in the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, he wrote, but then it didn’t seem to help Richard Nixon’s failed administration much. Given the current challenges facing the White House (climate and energy included), Von Drehle writes, “Wouldn’t it be nice if time on the job and tickets punched translated neatly into superior performance? Then finding great Presidents would be a simple matter of weighing résumés.”

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Von Drehle described experience as “egglike”- “At first blush, the idea appears to be something you can get your hands around … But bear down even slightly, and the notion of experience is liable to crack and run all over.” He notes that the “effectiveness” of many presidents has waned during a second term, contradicting the idea that familiarity with the mechanics of government is necessarily an asset. Indeed, scientific research in other areas seems to confirm the fickle value of experience.

In Time’s second article, John Cloud explores the “widely accepted” thesis that “mastering most complex human endeavors requires a minimum of ten years’ experience” (established decades ago by studies of telegraphy and chess-playing skills). The ten-year rule seems an “obvious and intuitive” explanation for the better performance of old-hand professionals (responsibly, studies have excluded prodigy and natural-athlete types), Cloud writes, but he leads with a scene from a Florida State University study where a veteran nurse makes the same fatal mistake on a dummy patient as a rookie:

In making the case that she would be a better President than Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton never forgets to summon the argument that she has more experience. But as the Florida State simulations show, experience doesn’t always help. In fact, three decades of research into expert performance has shown that experience itself - the raw amount of time you spend pursuing any particular activity, from brain surgery to skiing - can actually hinder your ability to deliver reproducibly superior performance.

If that last conclusion doesn’t seem plausible, think about drivers. Studies have shown that novices can be more alert and aware than veteran motorists who tend to talk on phones more and engage in other such dangerous practices. The key here is that there is a big difference between time-spent-doing and deliberate practice (drivers don’t really engage in the latter). Furthermore, as Cloud reports, there is an added difference between the majority of people who practice skills they already have and those that are constantly seeking out and practicing new skills.

It’s a bit of a stretch to apply the totally unrelated conditions of some of these experience studies to the Oval Office, but Cloud does a nice job avoiding any conclusions and merely posing the question: What do we know and how might we use that to evaluate candidates’ claims that they are most “qualified” to achieve a certain objective, climate treaty or otherwise. “Experts tend to be good at their particular talent, but when something unpredictable happens-something that changes the rules of the game they usually play-they’re little better than the rest of us,” Cloud writes. And as Von Drehle suggests, the qualities that make good president are “not exactly the sort of data you can find on a résumé.”

So when a news outlet like Greenwire publishes two articles with Obama and Clinton advisers dueling over the relative value of experience or fresh perspective, maybe the best thing for reporters to ask is not who is tested or who is new, but rather who is willing to keep practicing good government and how?

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.