Monday, September 01, 2008

Mrs. Palin goes to Washington

I've read a lot of the coverage of the Palin nomination, and it seems to me that both sides are missing something--the Democrats intentionally and the Republicans unintentionally. Palin's weakness may be her lack of experience, but it is also her strength. The Democrats, while trying to downplay their own nominee's similar shortcoming, argue that she doesn't have enough experience to handle the job of chief executive.

In what world is a first term senator, whose chief responsibilities are showing up for committee meetings and making earnest sounding speeches, considered more qualified than a first term governor, whose responsibilities include actually running a state--particularly when the only piece of successful legislation of which the senator in question was the primary sponsor was a bill that promoted relief, security, and democracy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

Democrats specifically point to Palin's lack of Washington experience, a qualification that one would think would be a detriment to changing the Washington, but has suddenly become a sine qua non for changing it.

First, there are plenty of successful presidents who had no Washington experience: Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Theodore Roosevelt. Likewise there are those presidents who are considered stinkers by many who had plenty of it: Richard Nixon had plenty of Washington experience. So did Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, and Herbert Hoover.

Washington experience before their presidency has earned many a darkly lit and inconspicuous place in the hall of presidents: Warren Harding, James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor. We could list more.

If Washington experience was good enough for Chester Arthur...

Grover Cleveland had no Washington experience, but, like Palin, he was a mayor and then a governor, in quick succession, and then became president, in the middle of his first term as governor of New York. He was controversial in his own party because of his reform-mindedness and took office when he was only 47. Oh, and then he became president again when he was 55.

Another fabled reformer, Theodore Roosevelt, was from outside Washington too. Like Palin, he had a familiarity with moose. He not only hunted them, but had a party named for the animal after he was asked once how he felt, and responded, "I feel as strong as a bull moose."

Washington experience, apparently, is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition to be a good president, and would appear to be a positive detriment to real reform.

Oh, and notice that the founders did not include "Washington experience" in the constitutional qualifications for vice presidents.

In fact, the Democrats are now in the unenviable position of fielding two establishment candidates who drone on about change against two Republican candidates, one of whom is from as far away from the beltway as it is possible to get, and both of whom are proven reformers.

Palin possesses other advantages as a potential vice president. First, the gun-wielding scourge of caribou will have little need for the "Former Vice President Protection Act of 2008" now being considered by Congress. Second, she apparently has better aim with a hunting rifle than current vice president Dick Cheney.

The importance of the vice president is, of course, a recent phenomenon, as witnessed by the widespread knowledge of names like George Dallas, Hannibal Hamlin, Garrett Hobart, and Elbridge Gerry. The vice presidency, said former vice president John Nance Gardner, "isn't worth a pitcher of warm piss." The concern for being "a heartbeat away" from the presidency is, in fact, something anyone before about 1940, before which the presidential candidate wasn't even consulted by the party bosses who made the selection, would think strange.

The fact is, the qualifications for the vice presidency have never been very high. The people complaining about how young Palin is have apparently forgotten about John C. Breckinridge, who was 36 when tapped for the post. And the chief qualification for William R. King, who liked to wear scarves and wigs and who, at the time of his selection was recuperating from tuberculosis and severe alcoholism in Cuba, seems to be that he had lived with the bachelor President James Buchanan for 15 years before Buchanan became president.

You do the math.

And then there was Andrew Johnson, who, drunk and belligerent at his inauguration, gave new meaning to the expression "swearing in" when he used the occasion to excoriate the members of the Supreme Court and Senate. The most unfortunate thing about the incident, however, is that it never became a tradition.

But the best response to the Democratic indignation over Palin is simply to throw a spotlight on who Sarah Palin is and what she has done. Ironically, the media seem to be doing a lot of this for them.

Sarah Palin combines two things that you seldom see in politics anymore: first, she is normal, second, she has led an exciting life. On the one hand, she is a middle class mother of five with a husband who works drilling for oil. On the other hand she played basketball, hunted moose and caribou, likes snowmobiling, and has worked, with her husband, a world champion snowmobiler, on a fishing trawler in the north Pacific. She is also attractive, well-spoken, and by all accounts intelligent.

Obama never did anything as remotely exciting on his wildest day as a community organizer.

If the Republicans are smart, they'll rely on Palin's story, not her resume. Don't hide her youth and inexperience--things once the dream of Democrats and now their nightmare, advertise them.


Anonymous said...

McCain has removed the experience issue from the campaign. Both sides have men on the ticket with decades of experience in Washington, and both have a candidate with little or no Washington experience.

Josh Rosenau said...

In what universe do you live? Teddy Roosevelt was, among other things, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and before that served on the US Civil Service Commission. Both positions meant living and working in Washington.

Similarly, you may be shocked to learn that Dwight Eisenhower's service in the Pentagon required him to live in DC.

I also wonder why you omitted the Lugar-Obama bill, a bill limiting the spread of weapons of mass destruction which was passed and signed into law. It's a success, and Obama was the sponsor. Then again, I don't know why you ignored the ethics legislation Obama shepherded through the Senate, legislation described as "the strongest ethics legislation to emerge from Congress yet."

Nor do I know why you don't consider the creation of a success. Obama and Tom Coburn worked together to create a database of every dollar spent by the US government, and worked together across party lines (again, as he did with Brownback on Darfur, with Lugar on WMD, etc.), and launched the site.

Furthermore, I do not see how you can simultaneously claim that Obama has no experience, and that he is an "establishment candidate." These are diametrically opposite concepts.

I note with interest that George Bush I did not make your list of failed DC insiders, and that George Bush II did not make your list of failed DC outsiders. These are the most obvious (to me) and certainly most recent, examples of each. Nor, oddly, did Bill Clinton earn a mention as a successful DC outsider, despite again being the most recent example.

Ah well. I'll note only in passing that Sarah Palin has managed, in her brief time in the Alaskan governorship, to embroil herself in several scandals, and is already under investigation by two branches of government. That's not the change we need. If we are, as you suggest, to take her time as governor to be the measure of her experience, that's not the experience we need.

Heck, if we're to look at her Alaska experience, maybe we should ask Alaskans what they think of her:

State Senate President Lyda Green said she thought it was a joke when someone called her at 6 a.m. to give her the news.

"She's not prepared to be governor. How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?" said Green, a Republican from Palin's hometown of Wasilla. "Look at what she's done to this state. What would she do to the nation?"…

State House Speaker John Harris, a Republican from Valdez, was astonished at the news. He didn't want to get into the issue of her qualifications.

"She's old enough," Harris said. "She's a U.S. citizen."

Former House Speaker Gail Phillips, a Republican political leader who has clashed with Palin in the past, was shocked when she heard the news Friday morning with her husband, Walt.

"I said to Walt, 'This can't be happening, because his advance team didn't come to Alaska to check her out," Phillips said.…

Few wanted to talk about anything else on talk radio Friday. Conservative host Rick Rydell said there are some benefits to the state, but it's a gamble for McCain to pick an unknown with what he considered "questionable vetting."

"It seems almost like a Hail Mary pass at the end of a football game," Rydell said in an interview after his show Friday.

But hey, I guess since she's gone snowboarding and hunting that's all pretty much a wash.

Martin Cothran said...


Yeah. You're right, Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy for one year. So it was incorrect to say "no Washington experience" as I did. How about "almost no Washington experience"?

Josh Rosenau said...

Try at least 7 years. A year at the Navy, 6 as the US Civil Service Commissioner. And a lifetime at the knee of his father, also a long-time civil servant.

You note that TR was a fabled reformer. It's worth noting that his reputation for reform earned him his first official posting in DC, cleaning up the patronage swamp that was the federal civil service. Similarly, one of Obama's first steps as Senator was to clean up the ethics mess that Republicans created in the US Senate.

Returning to the original point, TR and his father both bounced back and forth from New York to DC with no small regularity, but more often hosted Washington's elite at their New York mansions. Indeed, Edmund Morris suggests that TR was attracted to politics to avenge what he saw as political slights against his father. So much for being a Washington outsider. (Note: "outsider" doesn't mean the same thing as "outdoorsman"!)

Anyway, one egregious error down, many, many more to go!

Martin Cothran said...

Would you believe "perceived as a Washington outsider" (never has served in Congress)?

Okay, okay. I knew I should have read those Morris biographies. We're now handing over the prize for Theodore Roosevelt trivia to Josh.

Now that you're on a roll, let's hear about the other egregious errors.

Josh Rosenau said...

TR was not perceived as a DC outsider. Neither, FWIW, was Eisenhower.

As for other errors, I posted a whole long comment citing other errors.