Back To Basics On The Major Question Of The Democratic Campaign

As we approach the point where Hillary Clinton has to clobber Barack Obama and begin to win delegates or fade away, the candidates are finally debating what is, to many, the central question of any presidential campaign: in order to secure this most perfect union, who can best provide for the common defense? They've circled around this debate for twelve months, and now, thanks to Sen. Clinton's "3:00 a.m" advertising,

There's a debate about the value of experience -- by which we mean -- national security. Some say experience overrated. Is there a correlation between critical judgment and executive or national security experience? Prior to the debate about values, there is a debate about definitions. Does experience mean direct engagement with policy? Does it mean proximity to executive decision making? Does it mean something else? Does the experience of having lived through the administration of George W. Bush predispose Democrats towards a definition that privileges a record of judgments over a set of points of a resume?

For this precise question, the clearest historical analogue is, probably John F. Kennedy. He was a war hero, to be sure. But the court historians of Camelot have been so successful in building up, and in many cases obscuring his intellectual development -- just who, for example turned Why England Slept into Profiles In Courage? -- that just what was that the state of his judgment when he entered the White House; did he blunder into nuclear confrontation? Was his naivety about the ways of Washington in part responsible for his refusal to call off the Bay of Pigs? Was his prodigious intellect and rigorous skepticism responsible, as recordings later seemed to suggest, for countering the aggressive instincts of the Pentagon and correctly interpreting Khrushchev to diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis?

How about the foreign policy foibles of an inexperienced President Clinton in 1993 and 1994? (Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia)

Does judgment or experience even matter? Pace the oft-chaotic Carter White House, does the internal dynamic of the policy advice process influence the outcome more the individual preferences and views of the advisers?

When Hillary Clinton says that her instincts would be better than Barack Obama's because she has experience, does history bear that out? The force of personality

That's kind of a critical question, isn't it? History and argument provide few clear clues.