is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton
The debate over whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton has enough experience to be president obscures the real question: When is a vote for a young candidate reasonable?
Obama's résumé compares very favorably to those of other 46-year-olds. Clinton's, compared with that of other 60-year-olds, is, with all due respect to her, thin. It is indeed distinctive, and she does have more leadership experience than many, but she probably does not rise to the top of her age cohort. Obama does.
Since younger candidates will always have less experience than older candidates, the responsible question is: How should one evaluate the young?
There have been plenty of eras when Obama would have been considered not young but in the prime of life.
Aristotle identified 50 as life's prime. From 21 to 35, a citizen should be a warrior, he argued, and thereafter, during the peak of his intelligence, from 35 to 55, a political leader.
This same general sense of life's progression surfaced in the United States during the Constitutional Convention. There was little debate over setting the age of eligibility of the presidency at 35. The question was rather whether term limits should be imposed, since they might block service past the age of 50. On July 24, 1787, founder James Wilson (himself then 44) mounted a spirited defense of those who serve into their 80s. But the service of the young didn't need defending.
Increased life expectancies have dramatically extended life's prime. Have these changes altered its starting point? I doubt it. We will continue to have candidates of merit in their 40s and early 50s, and we need to know how to evaluate them effectively.
Although the age of eligibility for the presidency caused so little controversy that the issue is not discussed in the Federalist Papers, the age of eligibility for the House and Senate does arise, as in Federalist Paper 52: "A representative of the United States must be of the age of twenty-five years . . . the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith."
A senator would have to be older, at least 30, for reasons given in Federalist Paper 62: "The propriety of these distinctions is explained by the nature of the senatorial trust, which, requiring greater extent of information and stability of character, requires at the same time that the senator should have reached a period of life most likely to supply these advantages."
Age should properly bring broader and deeper knowledge of the world as well as stability of character. We might ask, then, of our candidates - McCain, Clinton and Obama - whether age has indeed brought them those things.
But we can take the evaluation further.
When a young candidate presents him- or herself to us, the candidate effectively claims: "Although I appear to you untested, I know I can do the job."
To prove such a case, a young candidate must do four things:
Offer an evidently accurate diagnosis of present problems, one more penetrating than those offered by other candidates.
Begin to sketch out solutions, recognizing that the actual solutions themselves will emerge in their most solid form only through actual engagement in the work.
Prove a clear capacity to convert the resources of mind, spirit and treasure into effective action in the world.
Make the case for him- or herself with grace, good judgment and integrity.
When a young candidate can do all these things, we should vote for that candidate because we will have successfully elected a person of merit in the prime of life.
Obama has done all of these things.
He has offered a penetrating diagnosis of a very important central crisis in American political life. Ordinary citizens have grown less and less willing to assume what belongs to them: responsibility for their lives, and for their political futures. The workings of politics have been muddied by PACS, lobbyists, political dynasties, and wrangles over grievance and victimhood. Notions of political responsibility (i.e., that citizens are the ones responsible for their own political destiny) have degraded. Citizens are unwilling or unready to pursue solutions through practical, grass-roots action to identify common goods and shared interests. We fail to solve our collective problems and fall, instead, into name-calling.
He has offered a sketch of solutions. On each policy issue, Obama has identified specific policy goals as well as explaining how citizens will be expected to take responsibility; we might, for instance, note his insistence on involving the American people in the practical negotiations over health care.
He has proved his capacity to convert potentialities into actualities. The proof lies in his campaign. He diagnosed the dominance of incumbents as a problem in our political life. He designed a strategy to resolve it: a grass-roots campaign that would deploy the new social-networking technologies to unsettle the complacency of incumbency.
Finally, he has done all this with grace, good judgment, and integrity.