Everything is faster in the internet age. It took about ten seconds from the time McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate for the conventional wisdom to congeal: Palin forfeits the experience issue and opens the way for attacks on McCain's judgment. South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn analogized her to Dan Quayle, but the better analogy--if the CW view is right--is Spiro Agnew, who had served one four-year term as Baltimore County Executive and a year-and-a-half as Maryland's Governor when Richard Nixon picked him in 1968. And the population of
But I wonder whether the CW is right. Seems to me, this year's election puts in play three different definitions of "experience." One is the
The second definition is a variant of the first; it likewise looks to time in office, but the focus is on executive jobs. George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton had six, eight, and twelve years as state governors, respectively, before entering the White House. Senators basically talk for a living. Governors have to make the trains run on time, metaphorically speaking. Presidents have to know how to steer the lumbering federal bureaucracy in their preferred direction; perhaps that means executive jobs are the résumé lines that should count most. On this view, it's hard to call any of the four candidates qualified for the presidency. McCain, Obama, and Biden are all Senators; none has high-level executive experience. And while Palin is her state's governor, she has less than two years in office, preceded by service as the Ethics Commissioner for the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission; before that she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska--a town whose population at the time, according Wikipedia, was about 5000.
Those two definitions are the ones used, at least tacitly, in most political commentary. But there is a third definition, and it may be the one the voters care most about: the relevant question is not how much time the candidate has spent in the relevant government jobs, but what the candidate has accomplished during that time. Most politicians, like most people in any line of work, leave no particular mark on the offices they hold. Their chief accomplishment is winning elections. But a few--the real standouts--rise to the top wherever they serve. Mark Warner didn't just warm the Virginia Governor's chair; he blew the job away. When he took office, the state's fiscal condition was awful; there was a massive structural mismatch between its revenue stream and the services voters demanded. (Sort of like the federal government today: an issue none of the candidates seems to want to discuss.) Warner fixed that problem, improved
How do the current candidates stack up on that definition?
McCain has plainly left his mark on the Senate--whether it's a good or bad mark depends on how one evaluates McCain-Feingold, the Senate compromise on judicial confirmations, the bipartisan immigration bill that failed to pass the House in 2006, and McCain's frequent attacks on Congressional pork. And that's just a short list of domestic issues from the last few years. Reasonable people can disagree about these topics, but it seems clear that McCain hasn't just been a timeserver. The Senate of the last decade (at least) would have been a very different place without him.
Is the same true of Joe Biden, who has been a Senator for fourteen years longer than McCain? Not obviously so, but perhaps that reflects my ignorance. Still, nothing I've read since Obama picked him and nothing in my memory of the past thirty years makes me think that either the Senate in particular or American government in general would look different without Biden's contributions. Quieter maybe, and a little less entertaining. But not appreciably different.
What about Obama? This, it seems to me, is the question that bothers a lot of voters who, like me, find Obama extremely impressive but worry that he might not be ready for the job he seeks. The problem isn't time: four years in the Senate are more than enough for an exceptional talent like Obama's to shine. Nor is the problem that he was a state senator only four years ago. State legislatures are hugely important institutions; eight years of service in one seems to me an underrated plus for a presidential candidate. The problem is, I'm not sure what Obama did during those eight years. It isn't obvious to me that he left a mark on
Which brings me back to Palin. Clearly, her résumé is thin, maybe disqualifying. Perhaps the jobs she has held are too small to count in a national presidential campaign. But that isn't obvious, not yet anyway. What matters more, to me and I bet to more than a few others, is what she's done in those jobs. The fact that her approval rating among Alaskans is in Mark Warner territory suggests that she might be the kind of governor Warner was in