Does Being First Lady Count as Executive Experience?

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Nobody would have elected Nancy Reagan president, but Hillary Clinton seemed more qualified in 2008 than some Republicans now running

Hillary Clinton full.jpg

Arguing that the GOP field is stronger than its critics think, Ramesh Ponnuru writes, "The three people most likely to win the Republican nomination -- Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman, according to Intrade.com -- have all been governors. Two of them were governors of states that Obama carried in 2008. By contrast, the top three candidates for the Democratic nomination last time around (Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards) had a combined zero days of executive experience."

That provoked a thought: is it accurate to say that a former first lady has zero days of executive experience? In coming years, we're again likely to see the husband or wife of a former governor or president seek office in his or her own right. And it seems to me that in some cases, their time as "first spouse" should count in their favor, albeit not nearly as much as if they were actually running the show.
 
Taking Hillary Clinton as an example, consider all the time she spent as the governor's wife in Arkansas, plus her singular experience as the president's wife:

Hillary Clinton was the only First Lady to keep an office in the West Wing among those of the president's senior staff. While her familiarity with the intricate political issues and decisions faced by the President, she openly discussed his work with him, yet stated that ultimately she was but one of several individuals he consulted before making a decision. They were known to disagree. Regarding his 1993 passage of welfare reform, the First Lady had reservations about federally supported childcare and Medicaid. When issues that she was working on were under discussion at the morning senior staff meetings, the First Lady often attended. Aides kept her informed of all pending legislation and oftentimes sought her reaction to issues as a way of gauging the President's potential response. Weighing in on his Cabinet appointments and knowing many of the individuals he named, she had working relationships with many of them.

There are all sorts of reasons why I'm glad Hillary Clinton didn't ascend to the White House in 2008, but had she done so, I'd have been comforted to know that her prior stint would have helped her performance. And I suspect the same could be said for Laura Bush, who took a very different approach to being first lady. She is, by all accounts, an incredibly smart woman, and it's impossible to believe that she could spend eight years in the White House without accruing wisdom about leadership generally, and running the executive branch in particular.

This isn't a call for more spousal candidacies. Familial dynasties strike me as unhealthy developments in America, whether passed among parents and children, siblings (sorry, Jeb) or spouses. But if I had to guess whether a savvy first lady like Bush or Clinton was better prepared or less prepared to be president than a corporate CEO or a lesser governor like half-termer Sarah Palin, I'd go with the former White House occupant.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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