Monday, September 01, 2008

The "Experience" Argument

Michael Kinsley opines,
The whole "experience" debate is silly. Under our system of government, there is only one job that gives you both executive and foreign policy experience, and that's the one McCain and Obama are running for. Nevertheless, it's a hardy perennial: If your opponent is a governor, you accuse him of lacking foreign policy experience. If he or she is a member of Congress, you say this person has never run anything. And if, by chance, your opponent has done both, you say that he or she is a "professional politician." When Republicans aren't complaining about someone's lack of experience, they are calling for term limits.

That's why the important point about Palin's lack of experience isn't about Palin. It's about McCain. And the question is not how his choice of Palin might complicate his ability to use the "experience" issue or whether he will have to drop experience as an issue. It's not about the proper role of experience as an issue. It's not about experience at all. It's about honesty. The question should be whether McCain - and all the other Republicans who have been going on for months about Obama's dangerous lack of foreign policy experience - ever meant a word of it. And the answer is apparently not. Many conservative pundits woke up this morning fully prepared to harp on Obama's alleged lack of experience for months more. Now they face the choice of either executing a Communist-style U-turn ("Experience? Feh! Who needs it?") or trying to keep a straight face while touting the importance of having been mayor of a town of 9,000 if you later find yourself president of a nation of 300 million.
This is largely correct, but I think that Kinsley is missing something important. Experience leaves a track record, and a candidate's track record can help us understand how the candidate will govern, relate to subordinates and government agencies, and what issues they hold near and dear. Obama has given us plenty of reasons to believe he would be an effective President, but his history leaves us with a weak sense of what he stands for. You may recall a similar candidate from a recent election who exploited the ambiguity in his résumé and ran as a "uniter, not a divider", and who proved to be one of the most divisive presidents in U.S. history. No, I'm not saying that Obama's going to turn out to be another G.W., nor am I saying that the voters who giddily voted for G.W. despite his faint qualifications are more critical in their evaluation of a candidate as a result (even if they should be). But it's a valid issue to raise.

On the other hand there's McCain, whose track record might be reassuring if he weren't so quick to repudiate any portion of it that he believes will interfere with his being elected - and, if necessary for election, to subsequently repudiate his repudiations. If the Republican Party could have rallied behind the John McCain who ran in 2000, I think he would have the potential to win in a walk. The reminted McCain who will say and do absolutely anything to get elected? This reinvented McCain makes me queasy.
How could anyone truly believe that Barack Obama's background and job history are inadequate experience for a president and simultaneously believe that Sarah Palin's background and job history are adequate? It's possible to believe one or the other. But both? Simply not possible.
If we're speaking of pundits then, certainly, Kinsely is right. Those who attacked Obama's qualifications to be President and now laud Palin's are liars. But Palin has another track record, and that's why she was picked - the religious right has good cause to believe that she's a sincere evangelical Christian with rigid, socially conservative views. It was on the basis of that track record, and the expectation that it would be possible to spin her thin political record as that of a reformer and economic conservative, that she was selected.

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