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Experience and Sarah Palin.

Whichever candidate is elected President, it will be the first time since Kennedy that someone went straight from the Senate to the White House – and Kennedy came from a very politically experienced family. Senators – like most academics, reporters, and we bloggers – tend to be know-it-alls and second-guessers. When I hear Senators speak, I can’t help thinking of Forghorn Leghorn (based on a comedic Senatorial character, Senator Claghorn). Senators (and bloggers) usually act as if they could do everything better, but the institutions that Senators have the most influence over (eg, the federal government, Fannie Mae) tend to be relatively poorly run.

Joseph Biden Questioning SC Nominee Samuel Alito (drawn from memory)
"Pay Attention, Son."

Successful governors and business CEOs learn to say No. They deal with limited resources. If you haven’t dealt with bureaucracies and made tough choices about priorities, — and succeeded at it — you tend to want to add too many new programs.

A President should have held at a minimum a major elective governmental position (such as VP, Governor, or Senator). Assuming that, I believe that the best actual experience for being President is, in descending order:

(1) Vice President,

(2) White House Chief of Staff (plus a major elective position),

(3) Governor,

(4) Business CEO (plus a major elective position),

(5) Mayor of one of the few very largest cities,

(6) major Cabinet Official (plus a major elective position),

(7) Senator.

I am disappointed that neither Senator McCain nor Senator Obama have substantial administrative experience in situations of scarcity. For each man, his most significant administrative experience so far has been his own campaign for President. I was surprised that Barack Obama did not pick a VP with administrative experience (such as Bayh), and I was even more surprised that many commentators (including here at VC) thought that Biden had the sort of experience that Obama lacked. Biden has knowledge of foreign policy, not substantial foreign experience. If Obama wins, I hope he picks David Axelrod as his chief of staff; that guy knows what he’s doing.

I was also hoping and assuming that McCain would pick a governor for VP, though I thought it would be Pawlenty. I follow politics more closely than most, but there are only four sitting governors who before today I had heard interviewed for more than a 30-second sound bite: the governors of California, New Jersey, Illinois (my home state), and Alaska.

I had heard Palin interviewed for several minutes (as well as hearing some sound bites) and before today thought of her as the governor with the best reputation in the nation for fighting pork, the governor with the best reputation in the nation for taking on the corrupt heavyweights in her own party, and one of the nation’s most popular governors. I guess I hadn’t realized until today that she had been in office only two years. Now that Warner has stepped down in Virginia, I thought of Palin somewhat vaguely as perhaps the nation’s best sitting governor. Today I learned more about her that I like and more about her that I don’t like (e.g., her view on abortion and her ridiculous and embarrassing approach to creationism).

I remember when George H.W. Bush picked Dan Quayle. It was obvious from the start that he was a lightweight. If only I knew Dan Quayle personally (rather than knowing friends of his), then I could paraphrase Quayle’s debate opponent, “I knew Dan Quayle; Dan Quayle was a friend of mine; Governor Palin, you’re no Dan Quayle.”

I can assure you that the tepid response to Quayle’s announcement in 1988 was nothing like the excited response to Palin today, and Quayle’s first informal remarks were at best underwhelming. Palin’s remarks were far more impressive, as are her accomplishments. It was said at the time that Quayle’s greatest political accomplishment was getting a friend confirmed for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals despite strong opposition. For most of the people making the Quayle comparisons, either they are too young to remember him, or they are engaging in wishful thinking.

As with any new candidate for President or VP, we don’t actually know whether he or she would be a good President. There’s always a risk of disaster. If I thought it likely that John McCain would drop dead in his first year in office, then I think the lack of foreign policy experience for Sarah Palin might be a very serious risk. But looking at probabilities, even if John McCain were to die in office, it is probable that it would be later in his first (or second) term. By that time, it is likely that Palin would be better prepared by experience to act as President than were these men on their first day as President: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or George W. Bush — or for that matter, Barack Obama would be. That’s why the actual pragmatic standards for being VP are different than the standards for being President.

If Obama or McCain were to die in office, by the time either Joe Biden or Sarah Palin replaced them, they would probably have spent several years getting good experience as VP. With Palin, we know not only that she has administrative experience, but that she has been successful in that experience. McCain brings foreign policy knowledge, as does Biden, and Obama brings brilliance, but we really have very little idea how well these three men can manage a government.

Unlike the Palin risk (becoming President with no substantial foreign policy experience and less than a year’s experience as VP), which is unlikely to occur, the Obama risk is likely to be realized: becoming President without having any substantial administrative experience as a governor or business CEO. I think everyone – Republicans and Democrats alike – hope that Obama’s brilliance and decency can make up for his experiential deficits.

I raise Bill Stuntz’s interesting, and somewhat related, views on experience here.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Stuntz on Experience and Accomplishments.--
  2. Experience and Sarah Palin.
82 Comments
Stuntz on Experience and Accomplishments.--

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.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Stuntz on Experience and Accomplishments.--
  2. Experience and Sarah Palin.
108 Comments