Susan Estrich: Experience Matters

Wrong track.

The headline on Friday morning’s New York Times says it all -- “81% in Poll Say Nation Is Headed on Wrong Track.”

It’s the economy, stupid, as James Carville so famously once said. It usually is. And when it comes to the economy, pessimism is in the air.

The way the New York Times puts it, the mood in America has “darkened” in recent months, to the point that we’re as bleak as we’ve been about our future since they started asking this question on polls in the early ‘90's.

When you’re doing politics, you watch these “right track-wrong track” numbers like a hawk. More than the horserace figures (that is, the candidate v. candidate match-ups), at least until the closing days of the campaign, the right track-wrong track numbers are a predictor not only of where people think the country is headed, but also where the votes are likely to be in any coming election.

Right track numbers measure the strength, or the vulnerability, not only of incumbents, but of their parties. A wrong track number of 81 percent should make this a Democratic year in the presidential election.

Now, what will happen in politics is not always what should.

In my experience, we Democrats have a unique ability to steal defeat from the jaws of victory. But the worse people think the country is doing, the more they will vote for change, and the less they will care about such things as what the pastor at the church you used to go to had to say in his sermons (Obama) or who your husband had an inappropriate sexual relationship with during the last century (Clinton) or what names you’ve called each other in the course of winning the nomination (both).

I used to joke, and it was only half in jest, that Willie Horton notwithstanding, Dukakis, didn’t have any problem that a recession wouldn’t solve. And it was true: furlough policy only matters when the economy is working. When it isn’t, voting on side issues is a luxury most people feel they can’t afford, and anything but the economy becomes a side issue.

The challenge this poses for John McCain is, ironically, not so different from the one Hillary Clinton has faced in recent months.

McCain is selling experience just as Hillary has been. By any measure, experience should matter in choosing political leaders. William Safire wrote a memorable column some years back marvelling at how it could be that so many people who would never hire a novice electrician to wire their homes or a novice plumber to redo their pipes nonetheless would prefer a novice politician to run their country, as compared to one who might actually know better how to run a government, or the world. But they do, at least when they believe we’re on the wrong track.

Experience becomes something you hide in campaigns, instead of something you trumpet. Outsiders, fresh faces, new ideas, and most important, “change” is the political mantra in wrong track elections.

Putting aside issues of personality, race, and gender, if that is possible, it seems to me that the single biggest reason Barack Obama is ahead of Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic nomination, albeit not as far ahead as some have characterized it, is because he got the message right. The message is change. It’s more important than Reverend Wright, more important than the phone at 3 A.M. or the crisis on January 21st. The one thing Barack Obama isn’t is “more of the same.”

Can a 71-year-old career politician who has been in Washington literally for decades positioning himself as the candidate who will change the course of the country, while at the same time holding onto the base of Republican Party stalwarts who represent the policies and perspectives that define, in many respects, the wrong track?

Can he associate himself with the sense of anxiety and uncertainty people feel about the economy, about job loss and foreign competition, while maintaining allegiance to Republican talking points that continue to emphasize how good things are, rather than how insecure people feel?

Not easily, is the short answer, which is why even if Democrats don’t have a nominee yet, and may not for some time, whoever it turns out to be will still have a definite advantage so long as the country is as depressed about its future as it is now.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for