8/30/2008

The Palin Standard: The Obama-Palin Experience Debate

John McCain's bold selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has set off a firestorm in the media and the blogosphere about inexperience and hypocrisy in regards to Palin and Barack Obama. It has also led me to create a new entry that I will integrate into my own political lexicon: "The Palin Standard"

Let's examine the political resumes of both candidates:

Barack Obama

Illinois state senator: 8 years
Illinois US senator: 3 years, 8 months

Total experience as an elected official: About 12 years

Sarah Palin

Alaska governor: 1 year, 9 months
Wasilla mayor: 6 years
Wasilla city councilwoman: 6 years

Total experience as an elected official: About 14 years

Republican defenders of Palin commonly say that the difference between the two candidates is that Obama is running at the top of his ticket while Palin is running at the bottom of hers. However, this argument is flawed for two reasons:

1. An inexperienced politician should not be on a presidential ticket at all. It doesn't matter if it's for president or vice president. Both positions entail too much responsibility for a political greenhorn to be entrusted with the White House. It now seems like more experience is required to become a senator than a vice president. Democrats' arguable irresponsibility has introduced a risk quotient that Obama must minimize in order for him to be elected. So how did McCain decide to counter this? By exercising comparable irresponsibility and surrendering one of his few advantages over Obama. And Republican voters' subsequent glee has conveyed to McCain that they condone his decision. Now John McCain has his own risk quotient to deal with because of Palin and the realization that McCain is old and has had several cancer scares.

2. Barack Obama's success is directly attributable to the millions of votes he received during the primary season. So even though he may be relatively inexperienced, enough voters were apparently comfortable enough with his resume to entrust him with their support at the ballot box. His inexperience was essentially forgiven or overlooked by Democratic primary voters, so the critiques of Obama are misplaced. He may be inexperienced, but the voters are the ones who got him this far. He earned his spot at the top of the ticket. So an attack on Obama's inexperience is essentially an attack on the millions of voters who voted for him or donated to his campaign.

Sarah Palin, on the other hand, did not arrive on the ticket because of votes she received or the campaign she ran, but rather because of the fact that she was appointed by John McCain. It is highly unlikely that Palin would have been given serious consideration from Republican voters had she participated in the Republican primaries earlier this year because even though she has experience, Republican primary voters would have concluded that she didn't have enough of it.

Palin does, however, have a unique biography and a message that could potentially resonate with certain constituencies. Of course, everyone in the race right now has a unique biography, so I'm not sure why Palin's is any more or any less unique than the other three candidates'. But stressing this message is a much better strategy for her campaign than stressing her experience because no amount of message-massaging will make this controversy go away.

Her appointment flies in the face of traditional Republican rhetoric, especially in regards to affirmative action. Given Palin's political positions and biography, she is essentially Mike Huckabee in a pantsuit. But he has more experience than she does. The same could be said of Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty. Thus, it seems that the main reason why Palin was chosen was gender, even though he had to pass over other more qualified candidates, male and female alike, in the process. If that's not affirmative action, which Republicans reject, then at the very least it's pandering. In light of Barack Obama's selection of Joe Biden instead of Hillary Clinton to be his running mate, the pandering charge has more plausibility. This could be a terrible miscalculation on McCain's part though because the PUMA wing of the Democratic Party is loyal to Hillary Clinton, not just any woman aspiring for higher office.

Of course, McCain has the right to choose whomever he wants, but conservatives should not be happy about an affirmative action selection or a selection that overtly comes across as him using another politician as a tool. Of course, all presidential nominees, including Obama, choose their running mates to help them get elected, but the fact that McCain had only met with Palin once and hardly knows her should be quite disturbing to most voters. This plays right into Obama's message of "judgment."

Republicans are indeed happy that Palin is fiercely pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax, and anti-Washington, but the way in which McCain arrived at this particular selection should suggest that their glee is misplaced. To compensate and reconcile their own dissonance, Republicans have tried to portray Palin's record in the best possible light, such as saying she has military experience because she has been in charge of the Alaska National Guard.

However, all governors are in charge of their states' National Guards. This means that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, President Bush, and even Michael Dukakis were even more qualified than Palin when it came to military affairs because they were in charge of their states' National Guards for longer than she was.

Speaking of the military, because she has a son about to be deployed to Iraq, she somehow has enhanced credibility on managing the war there. Are Republicans, the party of national security, prepared to say she is more credible on Iraq than McCain and Bush are because they she has a child deploying there and they don't? For what it's worth, Joe Biden also has a son deploying to Iraq, so it would seem that this issue of military children should be removed from the table altogether.

This spin exposes other problems for Republicans with their rhetoric:

1. Republicans claim that because Palin was a mayor and a governor, she has more executive experience than Obama. However, Obama has been the chief executive officer of his presidential campaign for 18 months (which is as long as Palin has been governor) which has been the most successful fundraising operation in political history and has been successful enough to win him the nomination. And given the number of campaign workers he has in all 50 states, the size of his campaign may be as large as the entire Alaska state government Palin manages. Of course, Palin was elected and Obama wasn't, but Obama's campaign was a sort of entrepreneurial enterprise, which Republicans should find appealing.

2. If Palin has more executive experience than the Barack Obama, that also means she has more executive experience than her boss John McCain. She would have more executive experience than Joe Biden as well. Does John McCain want to risk undercutting his own message of strength and leadership by having a running mate who has more executive experience than he does? Does she want to risk looking arrogant by claiming that she has more executive experience than Joe Biden even if it's true? Such questions wouldn't concern Obama so much because he's running on change, rather than experience. After all, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Jim Gilmore, Fred Thompson, and Tommy Thompson all tried running on experience and lost. The McCain campaign would be wise to get away from the discussion of experience and focus more on change because the voters already know about Obama's inexperience and are still more inclined to vote for him than McCain according to most polls.

3. If experience is at a premium, then Joe Biden has the most experience of the four candidates on the tickets. However, Republicans gleefully blasted him as a Washington insider because of his long Senate record. So it would seem to Republicans that if you are inexperienced, you are a weak candidate. But if you have too much experience, you can't be an attractive candidate either. So those two messages are in direct conflict with each other. Also, the Obama-Biden ticket actually has more years of combined experience than the McCain-Palin ticket. So the McCain-Palin ticket loses that argument as well. Obama is not making light of this fact, however, because again, he's running on change instead of experience.

Had Palin at least completed one full term as Alaska's governor, the outrage at her selection would be muted. But because she has not even finished half of her first term, her short gubernatorial tenure is compounded by the small size of the state from which she hails and the size of the town she governed as mayor before that. Palin has served as the mayor of a town that has fewer people than my university. And in regards to Alaska, there are 19 mayors who govern more people than Palin. Fairly or unfairly, that makes her governorship appear less significant.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with her resume, passing this experience off as sufficiently preparing someone for the vice presidency in Palin's case is a bit of a stretch. How comfortable would shareholders at IBM feel if their new vice president were the recent owner of Jack's Computer Repair Shop on the corner of Green Street and 4th Avenue in Parkersburg, West Virginia? Somehow I think most shareholders would be anxious.

Using the new Palin Standard, I could argue that a manager of a bowling alley has executive experience. The owner of a small business that has 50 employees has executive experience. A high school student council president has executive experience. A first lieutenant in the Army who serves as a company commander has executive experience. The director of a preschool has executive experience. Every single parent in America has executive experience. According to the Palin Standard, Republicans should have no reservations about any of these people being appointed vice president. They also should have voted for Al Gore instead of George Bush in 2000 for the same reason.

This is where the political risk to Democrats enters the equation. If someone objects to Palin's experience as a small town mayor and a governor of a small state, they risk being accused of mocking rural America and the people who live there. (Never mind the fact that Obama represented his small community in Chicago as an Illinois state senator for eight years.) Republicans will portray these criticisms as an affront by liberal elitists who are dogging small town America and will back up their charges with Obama's "bitter" remarks.

But this might not be an effective line of attack for two reasons:

1. Obama and his wife largely acquitted and reintroduced themselves in their speeches at the Democratic National Convention last week and will force most people to admit in their heart of hearts that perhaps Obama is sincere. The impact of his speech is likely a more salient memory of Obama than his "bitter" remarks from this spring. Thus, "bitter" might have lost most of its potency by now and threatens to make McCain and the Republicans seem like they have no new ideas.

2. The Democrats learned in 2004 that running as "not Bush" was not a strategy for winning a presidential election. Republicans who try to run as "not Obama" may end up with the same fate. Would the GOP really be wise to spend its upcoming convention talking about Democrats' disdain of rural America instead of talking about why voters should give Republicans a second look?

Republicans would be wise to stress Palin's message of reform and get away from talk about her experience because at best, it's a wash. And at worst, it's a distraction and eats up time the McCain campaign does not have. Obama is leading in the polls and time the McCain-Palin ticket spends comparing her experience with Obama's is time they are not spending articulating why Republicans should be entrusted with the White House for four more years even though the overwhelming majority of voters believe the nation is on the wrong track.

There's one other unintended consequence of the Palin selection that should concern the McCain campaign. McCain was able to deftly handle the media by announcing this surprise pick immediately after Barack Obama's acceptance speech. He successfully stepped on Obama's post-speech coverage and got him out of the headlines. The new risk for McCain, however, aside from Palin's own unknowns, is the fact that the spotlight currently on Palin could threaten to turn the election from a referendum on Obama into a referendum on McCain's judgment and Palin herself. (Consider this incriminating video.) Barack Obama's chances of winning this election diminish when the election is seen as a referendum on him. However, if the election is a referendum on McCain-Palin, who will undoubtedly continue to be linked to Bush, then Obama has to like his chances.

As I mentioned in my original Palin analysis, she presents McCain with both high risk and high reward. But perhaps there's too much shock value and star power for McCain's own good. At the very least, Republicans will never be able to criticize another Democrat or even another Republican for a lack of experience from now on because of the Palin Standard. She may have been good for McCain in that she got Obama out of the headlines, but the long-term damage to the GOP's ability to discredit a rival politician and the fact that it contradicts key elements of the Republican platform may not have been worth it.

7 comment(s):

DB said...

While I would never expect a Republican to just switch sides and support Obama over a pick like this, I would expect them to be critical of such a pick, which I have seen very little of. The Palin flags have gone up so fast that she might as well be the top of the ticket. I sense the right has found their own Obama. Everything they (and I) hate about Obama, his experience, his popularity, etc, they have found a candidate who mirrors that.

Even though I don't agree with a lot of the Republican platform, I have given them the benefit of the doubt on supporting candidates who meet a certain criteria that we should look for in a President. We want strong foreign policy background, a strong economic background, and some proven experience. This pick to me showed me that it was more than the qualifications of the person chosen, but who she attracts to the party. This is irresponsible. McCain had many better choices if he wanted a woman. I just don't get it.

Khaki Elephant said...

Key point of the experience issue: Palin is NOT on the top of the ticket. There is so much concern that she is a "heartbeat away from the presidency" with so little experience from folk who are voting for somebody with I see as less stepping directly into the presidency (I've seen Obama's actual time in the senate estimated at 140 days).

And I wouldn't put too much stock in Obama as the CEO of his successful campaign -- his campaign is being run by David Axelrod and a dream team of Democratic campaign managers who have a great deal of experience running these things. Besides, even if he were the CEO, running a campaign doesn't equate to strong excutive ability. Rudi did a hell of a job running NYC but he (and his people) ran what may have been the worst campaign in modern history.

Thomas said...

I love this pick for some reason. Part of it is seeing someone who comes off as a regular person running for such an important position. John McCain is a war hero. Barack Obama is a superstar at whatever he does - law school or politics. Joe Biden is one of the lions of the Senate. All good people, all very inaccessible to someone like me.

I have a brother who is developmentally disabled. It takes a special set of parents to raise such a child. Anyone who knowingly takes on this responsibility is going to be a person close to my heart. This doesn't qualify someone to be vice-president of course. But it tells me something very important about a person.

Another nobody was chosen to be vice-president in 1944 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR barely this man and he sure as hell didn't keep him in the loop about anything important. That man is Harry Truman and he rose above his inexperience and ties to corruption back in Missouri to become my favorite president of the last 50 years.

People say the Palin pick is a political move. To that, I ask, "Who should McCain have picked?" Everyone else he could have picked would have guaranteed defeat. McCain will still probably lose but he has a small chance of victory.

There is also the issue of just because someone has been playing in a small playground doesn't mean they aren't ready for the NBA. One of the things I love about America is that there are millions and millions of people out there who are good at what they do. Sarah Palin may be one of those people. She may be the next Harry Truman.

Anonymous said...

Let's see...an ex-beauty pagent winner...with a undergraduate degree in jounalism...who does not believe in global warming...who does believe a woman should have no control over her own body and for 9 months should be viewed as nothing more than a baby container...who's main attributes seem to be stubborness and vicious competiveness... who has had next to no experience in goverment...who has a currently very messy family situation given that she had recently given birth to a downs syndrome baby, has a 17 year old daughter who is unwed and pregnant and is facing investigation for using her political office to smear her ex-brother-in-law and get him fired (he is in a custody battle with her sister)...who seems to be in bed with big oil...who is running for VP...whose running mate is 72 and is a cancer survivor...who has no foreign policy background and in fact has only been out of the country twice...who may become President of the country I love at a time when it faces the most complex foreign policy issues, economic issues and domestic issues it has in decades...Why does this sound like a totally unbelievably bad novel???? I for one am terrified and can not understand what Mr. McCain was thinking!!!!

Anthony Palmer said...

Here's a good article that sums up the whole debate and why it's too bad we're even having it. Neither Obama nor Palin should really be on the tickets, but voters have indicated that their thin resumes aren't as disqualifying as some of us think they should be.

Anony said...

"but voters have indicated that their thin resumes aren't as disqualifying as some of us think they should be."

Well, without being snarky, the voters have only made that choice in Obama's case Palin was appointed. I think it is a distinction worthy of noting.

Thomas said...

experience is over-rated. we were told that bush and cheney's experience was sufficient in 2000, but 81% are currently dissatisfied with the direction of the country and bush's approval rating is 30% and cheney's is 25%.

granted congress's approval ratings are hovering around 20%, but perhaps their ratings are so low because they have failed to take on bush/cheney.

obama's argument is that proper judgment trumps experience. that will be the difference in the election one way or the other.

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