Why a U.S. senator might not trump a state legislator
We are in the opening days of a presidential campaign that pits youth against age, the virtues of experience against the freshness and riskiness of the new arrival.
I'm not here to refute all of that: John McCain is 25 years older than Barack Obama, and he always will be. But here's something I bet you didn't know: If Obama becomes president, he will have spent more time serving as a state legislator (eight years) than anyone who has occupied the White House since Abraham Lincoln.
You're thinking that's kind of irrelevant. John McCain has been a member of the U.S. Senate since 1986; do I really mean to suggest that Obama's eight years in the Illinois Senate (not the most august deliberative body, as anyone who has seen it will attest) provide the same preparation for the presidency? Well, not exactly. But looking back on quite a few years covering Congress, and an almost equal number of years following legislatures, I'm drawn to some slightly curmudgeonly comments about what it is that U.S. senators do, and what it is that state legislators do.
Twenty-first century U.S. senators are, virtually by the nature of the job, gadflies. They flit from one issue to another, generally developing little expertise on any of them; devote a large portion of their day to press conferences and other publicity opportunities; follow a daily schedule printed on a 3x5 card that a member of their staff has prepared; depend even more heavily on staff for detailed and time-consuming legislative negotiation that they are too busy to attend; and develop few close relationships with colleagues, nearly all of whom are as busy as they are. There are exceptions, of course—senators who beat the odds and develop an encyclopedic knowledge of topics that interest them—but they are the minority. I don't doubt McCain's instinct for global strategy, but a few months ago, when he had to be corrected on his statement that Iran was training Al Qaeda operatives, I wasn't surprised at all. I'm surprised this doesn't happen to senators more often.
By contrast, what do state legislators do? At their worst, they are doggedly parochial, people who tend first and foremost to the interests of a relatively small constituency. At their best, they keep all the state's significant issues in mind; it is possible to do that in a state legislature in a way that is not possible in Washington. During the years that Obama served in Springfield, 1997-2005, he was forced to wrestle with the minutiae of health-care policy, utility deregulation, transportation funding, school aid, and a host of other issues that are vitally important to America's coming years, but that U.S. senators are usually able to dispose of with a quick once-over. State legislators have to do this largely on their own, without ubiquitous staff guidance, because staffing is not lavish even in the more professional state capitols. They enter into day-to-day bargaining relationships over the details of legislation with colleagues of both parties; there is no one else to do it for them. At the end of the session, they are likely to know the strengths and quirks of nearly everyone who serves in their chamber.