I’ve been trying for the last day to figure out how I feel about McCain’s pick for Vice President. My first instinct was to think that this is a breathtakingly bad choice. It’s bad politics because it highlights the reckless side of McCain’s admirable boldness. And, far more importantly, it’s bad for the country because Palin is unusually unready to be President, yet was chosen primarily as a political stunt to drive wedges and manufacture excitement. All of this puts a dent in McCain’s commitment to “Country First.”
The more I’ve learned about Palin, however, the more I admire and respect her. Her personal story is unquestionably compelling. Her religious beliefs and views on some social issues are not mine, but she’s in the best tradition of Republican reformism against wasteful spending and entrenched bureaucracy. She brings an outsider’s willingness and ability to think anew about what government is doing well and what’s gone wrong. And she brings the newcomer’s enthusiasm and idealism to that effort. I would have voted for her as governor.
However, as McCain himself described his criteria for a veep choice last February, the first question for those of us inclined to vote for him is now this: Is Palin “fully prepared to take over” as president?
Many of the defenses of Palin’s readiness have been partisan hackery. This morning, for example, Newt Gingrich offered up her ex officio role as head of the Alaska National Guard as “military experience.” But several defenses or near-defenses have come from people whose views I take very seriously, including some of my co-bloggers. These have caused me to think harder about why it is I’m uncomfortable with this choice.
Especially impressive is the blog post by Bill Stuntz (noted earlier today by Jim) taking apart the arguments about “experience” now filling the airwaves and commentaries. Stuntz’s taxonomy of the types of experience – time in D.C., time in some “executive” office, and actual accomplishments while in office – is astute. Palin has no experience on the first dimension and little on the second. On the third, she’s more impressive but still thin, given only 18 months as governor.
But we have to ask, compared to whom? Obama himself has had little time in D.C., no time in executive office (running a campaign is not the same thing), and, despite his obvious intelligence and thoughtfulness, an undistinguished record of actual legislative accomplishment either as a state legislator or U.S. Senator. As a feminist friend of mine pointed out, the knock against Palin is that she’s one 72-year-old’s heartbeat away from the presidency, but the Democratic nominee is the living heartbeat of a potentially vacuous president.
Let me suggest a fourth dimension of “experience” that ought also be weighed: sheer exposure and vetting at a national and international level. By this I mean experience over time in answering hard questions about a wide range of issues, meeting with other national and international leaders, and responding on the record to crises and other developments as they arise. This kind of experience gives the country a chance to see how you think, to see how you handle high-octane pressure on the relevant national and international stages, to observe how you adapt when things don’t go as you thought they would, and so on. It also forces you to learn about, and to develop views about, important and complex national and international questions. Voters deserve to know these things about you. On this fourth dimension of experience, I’d rank McCain and Biden about even. I’d put Obama distinctly third. Palin doesn’t even register.
All of this may be academic in short time. The current defenses of McCain’s choice may look downright silly after Palin gives a few uninformed and embarrassing answers to basic questions of policy. The simmering scandal in Alaska over the firing of her ex-brother-in-law (or some other heretofore unexamined matter) may boil over in the heat of a national spotlight, revealing a personal pettiness and vindictiveness behind the earnest persona. For all the optimism we’re now hearing in conservative circles, McCain may be put in the position of having to win despite his veep pick, just as the first President Bush had to do.
None of this is decisive on how a person should vote. Having the relevant experience at the top of the ticket is still more important than having it at the bottom. Even on the experience question, there’s some ground to believe that Palin is smart enough and dedicated enough to ramp up fairly quickly. She’d at least have some time and experience in all four dimensions before she might have to take over as president.
Further, lots of things besides experience matter in a presidential election. We’ve had some “experienced” presidents who were terrible and a few inexperienced ones who were quite good. Substantive policy views matter tremendously. I'd rather have an inexperienced president haphazardly advancing good policies than an experienced one effectively pursuing destructive ones. Intelligence, broad knowledge, willingness to consider opposing views and evidence, and temperament matter, too. On some of these criteria, Palin seems like a good choice, on others not so much, and on still others, we don’t yet know.
But for at least some of us who have welcomed the thought of President McCain, the prospect of President Palin is, at least for now, unsettling.