Why executive experience is irrelevant
John McCain’s new running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, will speak at the Republican National Convention tonight. She has received some intense media scrutiny over the past week, but very little of that criticism has been the product of respectable journalism and so has done nothing to change my own opinion of the woman. She’s under investigation for illegally removing a state trooper from the force, but when you look at what that cop is accused of doing, it seems to me that it’d be a bigger crime if she ISN’T guilty. And of course, Barack Obama told the media to lay off the Governor’s pregnant daughter, and he was absolutely right. No, the only story so far with any real viability is the one about Palin’s resume. I don’t know enough to judge her competence, partisanship, or integrity, but she is too conservative for me and too inexperienced for America.
I’ll be voting for Barack Obama, but I’ve made no secret about my own hesitations regarding the Illinois Senator’s resume. That being said, he does have more leadership experience than Governor Palin. She was mayor of a town of less than 7,000 people for six years; he was a member of the state legislature that helped govern the nation’s third largest city for seven. Come January, he will have been a member of the US Senate for four years; she a Governor of a state with 1.2 people per square mile for just two. The Republican response is, predictably, that her experience is EXECUTIVE and his merely legislative. McCain surrogate Carly Fiornia, who was once ousted as CEO of Hewlett Packard, has made that argument and insists that anyone who dares disagree with her is sexist:
“I am appalled by the Obama campaign's attempts to belittle Governor Sarah Palin’s experience. The facts are that Sarah Palin has made more executive decisions as a Mayor and Governor than Barack Obama has made in his life.
“Because of Hillary Clinton's historic run for the Presidency and the treatment she received, American women are more highly tuned than ever to recognize and decry sexism in all its forms. They will not tolerate sexist treatment of Governor Palin.”
I wonder, would Fiorina call herself a racist for criticizing Obama and ignoring his work on ethics reform, death penalty reform, and nuclear proliferation? But I digress. Republican spinners and the conservative bloggers who take their marching orders have widely missed the mark about Palin’s inexperience. Can someone explain to me just why executive experience is so much better than that of the legislative variety? I can only think of two possible reasons, and neither makes sense.
The first is that the President, as head of the “Executive Branch,” runs the government – but what’s in a name? The President doesn’t handle the nuts and bolts of management. He’s got a Chief of Staff to run the White House and a Cabinet to run the various departments and agencies. Whether we acknowledge it with a Constitutional label or not, the President’s legislative role is just as expansive and important as his (or her) management role. He battles with Congress over every law and nomination, and frequently sends staffers and Cabinet members to the Hill for negotiations. The State of the Union address largely sets the legislative agenda.
Yes, perhaps being Governor does prepare a person for part of the Presidency, but not for the whole thing, and the same can be said of the Senate. So let’s stop trying to suggest one is better than the other – especially since there are at least 16 American cities with larger populations than Alaska. You could even say that Joe Biden gained more executive experience running the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committee staffs than Sarah Palin gained running the village of Wasilla – a job Palin herself said was “not rocket science,” Fiorina’s insistence to the contrary notwithstanding.
The second argument for executive experience is that four of our last five Presidents were Governors – but this just means Governors make good candidates, not good Presidents. Their resumes may have helped these four men reach the White House, but they didn’t necessarily help them do a good job once they were there. Jimmy Carter was, well, Jimmy Carter. Ronald Reagan helped speed up the end of the Cold War, but also left us with a then-record deficit and was either complicit or negligent in Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton botched health care negotiations with Congress and left office with no major accomplishments. George W. Bush appointed hacks like Michael Brown, Alberto Gonzalez, and Don Rumsfeld, mismanaged Iraq and Katrina, and left both the Constitution and America’s reputation in tatters. Just what about these four Governors is supposed to fire me up about executive experience? I’m left yearning for the days of SENATOR John F. Kennedy, when responsibility was taken for mistakes (the Bay of Pigs), tax cuts were responsible, and cooler heads prevailed during the most perilous moment in our nations’ history. (To be fair, both Roosevelts were Governors.)
No, when you get right down to it, the ideal presidential resume is one with both executive and legislative experience, but when you’ve only got one or the other, it doesn’t really matter which. Senators Joe Biden and John McCain have the requisite resumes; Senator Barack Obama probably doesn’t. Governors Bill Richardson (D-NM) and Bobby Jindal (R-LA) are more or less ready for the White House; Sarah Palin, not so much. And that’s just about the resumes – anyone who excludes character (and obviously policy) from the discussion is turning a blind eye to both history and electoral politics. Richard Nixon and John Edwards are proof enough of that.
Given Obama’s short resume, Democrats shouldn’t hammer Palin on her lack of experience – although he is quick to point out that his campaign has a larger staff and budget than does Wasilla, AK. At the same time, though, Republicans should drop the experience attacks on Obama lest they seem like hypocrites, and they should drop the line about executive experience unless their goal is to remind us that McCain, like Obama, has none.