Imagine you’re a football fan.

OK, we live in New England Patriots territory, so that’s probably not all too much of a stretch. But imagine that you’ve been watching games for years, always enjoyed the sport, and have now decided that you want to get involved in the sport professionally. Are you going to waltz down to Gilette Stadium and suggest that Bob Kraft hire you as his head coach or general manager? That probably wouldn’t be that great a strategy; even the most incompetent team in the NFL wouldn’t just hire a random person off the street for one of the most important jobs in its organization. No, what you’d be more likely to do is volunteer to coach a local youth team, or be a referee. Then, if you were dedicated and competent, you might be able to slowly work your way up through the ranks.

This is the way it works in most professions, regardless of the industry: To get to the top spot, you need to have the résumé to justify your hiring. The only real exception to this is if you’re the one doing the hiring because you’re starting your own business. Then you get the glory of being the boss because you’re the one taking the most risks, putting your own money and quite likely a lot of your own time into it.

Government is, in many ways, the only industry that doesn’t usually work that way. A huge majority of government does, of course: the professionals at the state and local level who are hired, rather than elected, typically advance in the normal way. At the top of our government, rather than career professionals, are elected officials and those they appoint.

In the past in our democracy, this hasn’t been much of a problem, as voters have put a premium on experience as well. Since campaigning is quite different from governing, experience has never been the only thing that mattered — that’s the nature of a democracy. Over the years, there have been any number of elected officials and unsuccessful candidates who are great at governing but lousy at campaigning (or the reverse).

Generally, though, voters have trended towards candidates who had just enough experience to pair with their charisma, so voters could be confident that the candidate might be able to actually run things once they won. Lately, however, that tradition seems to have gone off the rails, as voters have not only placed less value on experience, but have actively shunned it.


This began in 2008, when Democratic voters chose a fresh face, freshman U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, over longtime party stalwart Hillary Clinton. During the general election, Republicans attempted to attack Obama for his inexperience, especially compared to his opponent, longtime U.S. Sen. John McCain. Just as many voters in both parties weren’t content with the familiar Hillary Clinton, they weren’t impressed with McCain’s lengthy résumé of service either. The same attitude prevailed among the electorate during the GOP wave of 2010, when a number of longtime incumbents lost and insurgent candidates knocked off party favorites in primaries.

In Maine, we elected a new Republican governor, Paul LePage. LePage may not have been a favorite among the GOP establishment at the time, but he wasn’t totally unknown or inexperienced. He never served in the Legislature, but he’d been a successful mayor of Waterville — something his campaign consistently emphasized as a strength. He had enough experience in government to be credible, without anyone being able to label him an Augusta insider. That stood him in start contrast to his Democratic opponent, Libby Mitchell, who’d spent almost two decades in the Legislature and had deep ties to her party establishment.

In 2018, both parties have a number of candidates running who have far less governing experience and connection to their party than LePage. They seem to be betting on the full outsider approach — that voters have now completely abandoned experience as a virtue and will be willing to elect anyone who shares their values.

That may be a winning campaign strategy, but it shouldn’t be, and it’s not good for governing. If either party wants to actually get things done, they ought to nominate someone who has at least some experience in government. That’s what Maine needs in the Blaine House, not a fresh face who has no idea what to do after being sworn in. Experience shouldn’t be all that matters in an election, but it should certainly be a factor.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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