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Discounting Experience

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Samuel Johnson wrote, "Second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience." As the 2008 presidential campaign unfolds, a curiously large number of voters in each of the two major parties seem to be banking more on hope than experience.

Romantic idealism is hardly new in American politics, but the picture this cycle looks a bit more dramatic than usual.

Within the Democratic Party, national surveys over the past month have shown freshman Sen. Barack Obama, scarcely two years out of the Illinois Legislature, pulling between 20 and 31 percent support from the rank and file, despite being in a field of vastly more experienced candidates.

Just a glance at the impressive resumes of some of the other contenders -- who include the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and a former Energy secretary and United Nations ambassador -- reveals a striking contrast.

Among Republican voters, 29 to 44 percent have said they prefer former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani over his rivals. That's a very strong level of support considering his scant experience on national security -- a set of issues that many Republicans value highly (we won't dwell on Giuliani's quitting the Iraq Study Group after missing meetings).

Also factor in that the last mayor to get elected president was Calvin Coolidge, and that Hizzoner's positions on most litmus-test social issues are diametrically opposed to those of the GOP's base. All told, Giuliani has more baggage than a Samsonite warehouse.

In choosing their next president, Americans are clearly looking for something other than just credentials. They seem to be desperately looking for some intangible leadership quality -- for someone they can look up to and trust with enormous responsibilities.

Whether voters nominate Obama and Giuliani in the end is beside the point: People are seeking something different in their president this time. And at least initially, they are unusually drawn to candidates offering hope (Obama) or courage (Giuliani).

Perhaps voters are signaling that they feel they have been let down -- in different ways -- by leaders of each party on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Normally, such disappointment might breed cynicism.

Yet in the past half-dozen years, voters have demonstrated their belief that the occupant of the Oval Office really does matter. That belief is one reason that 125 million voters turned out in 2004, up from 105 million in 2000. Interest in the next election is already extraordinarily high, given how far we are from November 2008.

Both Obama and Giuliani will be sorely challenged over the next year by questions and verbal assaults that will test their mettle. Obama, who never faced so much as a truly harsh television ad in his Senate primary and general election campaigns, will have to show that he can take tough punches and keep going.

How will he handle questions about having twice voted "present" when the Illinois Senate was considering a bill to ban "partial-birth" abortions? How will he explain his votes as a state lawmaker that could easily be portrayed as "soft on crime?"

Giuliani will, of course, face hard attacks about his liberal positions on social and cultural issues and about his checkered personal history. Moreover, opponents will also ask exactly what he did on and after 9/11 that was so special, beyond just projecting a strong and tough image on television.

Wasn't New York City's emergency-preparedness center located on the 23rd floor of the only major building in the city that had previously been hit by Qaeda terrorists? How smart was that? And why didn't the city's police and firefighters have equipment enabling them to communicate with each other? If Giuliani was so great, why was his job-approval rating before 9/11 almost as low as President Bush's is today?

Voters may have stars in their eyes at the moment, but they'll want answers before deciding whether to walk down the aisle with either of these men.

 
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