The Palin choice-2: The experience question

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate is a poor one, I don’t think the problem is Palin the person or her knowledge and experience. For all I know about her, Palin may well make an excellent vice-president (and president, if necessary).

I have never understood why people and the media are so obsessed with the experience argument. If there is any job for which relevant experience is unobtainable, it is the presidency of a country simply because the job is unique. What you are called upon to do in that job is unlike any other job you will ever have. The only kind of experience that is directly relevant, but which you can never get, is first being the president of some other country.

Furthermore, as president, you don’t actually run the government or even the White House in any practical sense. Other people do all that and you have at your beck and call all the people you want for advice and actual implementation. The concrete skills that you need are not for being president but for running for the office. That requires the ability to raise a lot of money, run a good campaign, deal with the media, and speak well in public. Having prior experience in those areas definitely comes in useful during elections.

Palin already has run for governor and won, so she has some experience in this area, even though Alaska is not a big state in terms of population, ranking #47 among states. But she is being selected for vice-president and will join an already existing campaign the running of which is out of her hands, so that should not be a major problem.

What I find very odd is that some of her supporters are chortling that her lack of experience and knowledge on national and international issues cannot be used against her because Obama is also allegedly inexperienced. This argument does not make any sense. It was the McCain camp that was banking heavily on using the inexperience argument against Obama. By choosing Palin, McCain has effectively taken that argument off the table. Obama wins because he now does not have to even defend himself on the inexperience charge. All he has to do is watch while the McCain camp make fools of themselves arguing that she is more experienced than him. It is strange for McCain supporters to claim a victory for unilaterally disarming themselves. (See this cartoon.)

While I don’t think experience should be a big factor in judging whether someone could be a good president, this does not mean that certain qualities are not preferred and even essential. There are things that I think a good president should have but those qualities can be developed over most kinds of life experiences. The important question is to what extent has her past life and work reveals that she has those qualities.

The qualities that a good president needs (which are independent of any polices or ideology) are many: have a commitment to uphold the constitution in spirit and letter, should have a commitment to the national and global interest over petty parochialism, be able to use evidence and reason in arriving at thoughtful decisions, be a good judge of people and situations, have a curious mind and be a quick learner, be humble enough to be able to ask for and take advice, be aware of the impact that one’s words carry and thus be prudent in what one says, be aware of the power that one has and be cautious in exercising it, and be able to take the long view and think strategically while being flexible enough to make tactical changes when the contingencies of events demand them

Wasilla city hall.jpg

Photo courtesy of

Whether she has had obtained enough experience, as the mayor of a tiny remote town of Wasilla (which, as humorist Dave Barry points out, has roughly the same number of houses as John McCain) and less than two years as governor of a state with a total population that is comparable to the city of Cleveland, to be able to step in and be president is somewhat irrelevant, except insofar as what her actions in the past reveal about the important qualities that are relevant to being president.

There is an interesting blog by someone living close to Wasilla that talks about life in that part of the word. This blog has suddenly shot up in popularity, becoming the go-to place to find out about Palin and her life. In one post the blogger describes the shock at hearing the news of Palin’s selection and in another he describes the increasingly messy investigation into the abuse of power allegations against Palin.

In my opinion, there are hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of people around the country who have many if not most those qualities and would make wonderful presidents. That is why the discussion as to whether someone is the ‘best’ person for the presidency or vice presidency is absurd. There is never a ‘best’ person. There are only better or worse people in terms of meeting those standards. President Bush has clearly demonstrated that he does not have most of the required qualities but Palin might. The problem is that we simply do not know.

The questions about whether she has the desired qualities may be answered as her life comes under scrutiny, but as yet the answers are unknown. McCain’s statement that she is clearly the best person for the job is laughable on its face, and a sign of desperation. The interesting question I want to examine is how McCain came to pick her and what the selection says about him with respect to his own possession of the above qualities, and how this might affect the campaign.

In subsequent posts, I will break down this question into the various considerations that McCain and his team may have taken into account and see how she stacks up.

POST SCRIPT: Sarah who?

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are taken by surprise.

The Palin choice-1: Why?

Like almost everyone, I was stunned by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate. And like them, I am wondering which of the two extreme views of her nomination is true: that she is a bold choice that will give McCain victory in November or that she is terrible pick that will end up being a millstone around his neck and send him spiraling down to a defeat of historic proportions.

There has, of course, been enormous attention to this story. While I don’t usually pay too much attention to the personalities of politics, preferring to focus on a few issues that are important to me, the exceptional nature of the choice has sucked me into the discussion along with everyone else, mainly to try and figure out what this pick reveals about McCain.

Since I knew I would traveling over the Labor Day weekend and would not have my laptop or internet access, I wrote most of my coming posts last Friday, the day on which her selection was announced, and Saturday morning. While driving during the long weekend, I only heard news headlines about the progress of hurricane Gustav and nothing about Palin, so I have had to time to mull over my initial reactions to McCain’s decision. And my initial reaction that this was a bad choice has solidified.

(As is my usual style, whenever I feel that I need multiple posts to cover a topic, in order to create a coherent narrative, I first write out a skeletal outline of the entire series, which is then fleshed out, updated, polished, and edited before each daily posting. I now wonder if Palin might withdraw from the race even before my series ends next week, so I am preempting the completion of my series on the politics of food until the Palin series is over. That is how bad I think this development is for the Republican ticket.)

There are definitely many positives to her choice. But the problem is that each of those positives, aimed at achieving a particular result, are more than cancelled out by huge negatives that will prevent that result being achieved. The calculations involved are fairly obvious. So the question of interest is how McCain and his team did the same sums that I did and came out with a much different answer. What did they think was so positive about her that would compensate for these negatives?

Palin’s name was not unknown to me. I had heard of her before this and had also heard the chatter that she was on his short list of candidates. But I had not given much credence to those reports because I first learned of her some time ago in the context of articles on the investigations into charges of corruption and abuse of power in Alaskan politics, highlighting senator Ted Stevens but also others including her. I knew that she and her husband were in the midst of a situation in which she was alleged as governor of the state to have exerted undue influence to get her brother-in-law (who was mired in a messy custody battle with her sister) fired from his job as a state trooper, going to the extent even of firing her Public Safety Commissioner because he did not carry out her wishes. Josh Marshall has an excellent synopsis of what has become called, inevitably, ‘troopergate’.

There are reports that she is to be deposed in that court case soon and that she has claimed executive privilege to not release certain records to investigators and may face subpoenas as a result. She has hired a private lawyer to look after her interests, a sign that she may fear prosecution for actions that fall outside her official prerogatives.

Because of all this, I did not take her chances seriously. And this was even before I returned home on Tuesday morning, checked the news, and discovered that the whole thing had blown up into a full-throated soap opera. I thought that she was put on the list of candidates for the same reason that many such names are usually leaked, to satisfy narrow constituencies that their interests are being considered. I figured that McCain would be foolish to pick someone slap in the middle of being investigated for abuse of power. Why take on that aggravation when there are so many other people who won’t come with all that baggage?

Someone once said that the most common last words expressed by reckless men before they do something stupid is: “Hey guys, watch this!” The McCain decision strikes me as exactly one of those ideas, something that looks bold and daring and exciting in the heat of a brainstorming session where a few people are trying to “think outside box” and make a stunning impression, but where all the negatives only show up in the cold light of day. It is then that you realize that there is a very thin line separating ‘thinking outside the box’ from ‘being out of your mind’.

I think that this decision is going to haunt McCain. His and her ardent supporters are trying to put on a good face and saying that this move is a ‘game changer’. I think they are right but not in a good way for him. It risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama.

Next: The experience question

POST SCRIPT: Political humor

Sarah Palin has her own blog!