Bill Stuntz has a fascinating analysis of experience and accomplishments. After discussing experience as time spent in state or federal jobs, he writes:
But there is a third definition, and it may be the one the voters care most about: the relevant question is not how much time the candidate has spent in the relevant government jobs, but what the candidate has accomplished during that time. Most politicians, like most people in any line of work, leave no particular mark on the offices they hold. Their chief accomplishment is winning elections. But a few--the real standouts--rise to the top wherever they serve. Mark Warner didn't just warm the Virginia Governor's chair; he blew the job away. When he took office, the state's fiscal condition was awful; there was a massive structural mismatch between its revenue stream and the services voters demanded. (Sort of like the federal government today: an issue none of the candidates seems to want to discuss.) Warner fixed that problem, improved Northern Virginia's awful road system, upgraded the state university system--and did it all while keeping taxes reasonably low. On the Republican side, Bobby Jindal has a Warner-like record: he seems to transform every job he holds, making Louisiana's health care system, its university system, and now the state's government as a whole accomplish much more without spending much more to do it.
How do the current candidates stack up on that definition?
McCain has plainly left his mark on the Senate--whether it's a good or bad mark depends on how one evaluates McCain-Feingold, the Senate compromise on judicial confirmations, the bipartisan immigration bill that failed to pass the House in 2006, and McCain's frequent attacks on Congressional pork. And that's just a short list of domestic issues from the last few years. Reasonable people can disagree about these topics, but it seems clear that McCain hasn't just been a timeserver. The Senate of the last decade (at least) would have been a very different place without him.
Is the same true of Joe Biden, who has been a Senator for fourteen years longer than McCain? Not obviously so, but perhaps that reflects my ignorance. Still, nothing I've read since Obama picked him and nothing in my memory of the past thirty years makes me think that either the Senate in particular or American government in general would look different without Biden's contributions. Quieter maybe, and a little less entertaining. But not appreciably different.
What about Obama? This, it seems to me, is the question that bothers a lot of voters who, like me, find Obama extremely impressive but worry that he might not be ready for the job he seeks. The problem isn't time: four years in the Senate are more than enough for an exceptional talent like Obama's to shine. Nor is the problem that he was a state senator only four years ago. State legislatures are hugely important institutions; eight years of service in one seems to me an underrated plus for a presidential candidate. The problem is, I'm not sure what Obama did during those eight years. It isn't obvious to me that he left a mark on Illinois government--and he should have, if he aspires to the nation's presidency. The same point applies to his current job: I have yet to hear any current Senator explain how Obama changed some important piece of legislation in fundamental ways, or stood up to the Democratic caucus on some major issue about which he and his party disagreed, or worked to bring about some compromise that would have been impossible without his efforts. With McCain, the question is whether you like the things he's done. With Obama--Biden too, I think--the question is whether he's done much.
Which brings me back to Palin. Clearly, her résumé is thin, maybe disqualifying. Perhaps the jobs she has held are too small to count in a national presidential campaign. But that isn't obvious, not yet anyway. What matters more, to me and I bet to more than a few others, is what she's done in those jobs. The fact that her approval rating among Alaskans is in Mark Warner territory suggests that she might be the kind of governor Warner was in Virginia. If so, that should count for a lot--even if she hasn't had much time in office. Because time-serving won't count for much in the offices these four candidates are seeking.