Sunday, August 31, 2008

Is Sarah Palin Fit to Be Vice President?

I along with many others were stunned at John McCain’s choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate. With Barack Obama’s VP choice of Joe Biden — someone known to be an especially good debater — it seemed to me and many others that McCain almost had to pick someone like Mitt Romney to be able to go toe-to-toe against Biden in a VP debate.

As I stated in one of my recent blog postings,
Redefining the Vice Presidency, this office is finally being taken seriously as an important government function — but McCain’s choice has provided a setback in that regard.

With Palin having less than 2 years of experience governing a state with a very small population following her time spent as a small town mayor, the experience issue has understandably been raised again. Even despite her extraordinarily high approval ratings in Alaska, the two top Alaskan newspapers are
questioning her fitness for the VP position.

To try and sort this all out, it is important to note that there are two types of experience in the political arena most often used to judge candidates and each has its own strong and weak points.

One is legislative experience. Those who serve in Congress deal with national and international issues as a regular part of their duties. But those who serve as part of committees like for example, the
US Senate Foreign Relations Committee have even stronger expertise in these areas.

The other is executive experience. Governors, for example, have to actually run a government along with balancing its budget.

So while legislators in Congress are generally more experienced on national and international issues, they typically have no experience actually running a government. And while governors do have experience running a government, they are typically weaker on national and international experience. With the notable exception of former Democratic candidate New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who has experience in both areas, each candidate has to work on accentuating the strengths of their experience while downplaying their weak points. This explains the tactic used by those defending Palin’s lack of experience by saying that she has more executive experience than Obama and Biden combined.

So which experience is better? That’s hard to say. But governors have done far better in presidential elections than legislators when you consider that the last legislator we elected as president was Senator John F. Kennedy back in 1960. Why have legislators fared so poorly? I feel that the nature of Congressional business requires a fair amount of compromise and deal making in order to get anything accomplished. Sometimes it is necessary to resort to
vote trading and thus vote in favor of a bill that a legislator may find some fault with in order to get a similar deal from another legislator in support of his own bill. Especially for governors who have no similar record to attack, this makes it easy for them to spot voting inconsistencies on the part of their Congressional opponents that they can use to their advantage in the campaigns.

But I believe there is an overlooked third type of experience that is extremely desirable for a prospective VP choice. And that is presidential campaign experience. For one thing, just to get on the ballot as a creditable major party presidential candidate requires a certain amount of experience. Can you imagine Sarah Palin as a creditable presidential candidate? Or Spiro Agnew? Or Dan Quayle? Me neither.

Some would say, but they’re only running for vice president, not president. Again this shows a lack of respect for the value of the VP position — something that McCain has exhibited in the past. This is especially odd considering McCain’s age (72).

A presidential campaign is in itself, a brutal examination for a candidate. That person is vetted by both the national media and the public in ways that a someone like Palin has never had to experience. For example, it is now in the national media since the VP announcement that Palin is
under investigation by the Alaska legislature as to whether she abused her powers of office in the firing of a public official. Will this turn out to be a problem? Probably not, but if she was in the campaign spotlight beforehand, this likely would have been made public and perhaps resolved before the VP decision instead of risking major embarrassment to the party after the choice had already been made.

So if experience was not the reason McCain selected her, what was? There were most likely two main reasons. One is Palin’s evangelical conservative credentials to appeal to that part of the GOP that hasn’t quite trusted McCain as a true conservative. And just as important, there is the attempt to attract the female supporters of Hillary who are unhappy with their girl being left off the Democratic ticket.

But other than both being women, the pro-choice liberal Hillary Clinton and the pro-life conservative Sarah Palin can hardly be more different which would make this a really tough sell to Hillary supporters. And the age and health issues surrounding McCain now that he has such an inexperienced number two will again come to the forefront. Many will picture Sarah Palin someday sitting across the table from Russia’s Putin or maybe Iran’s Ahmadinejad — or even debating foreign affairs issues with Joe Biden. The Obama/Biden team suddenly doesn’t look so inexperienced.

And there are likely some former presidential candidates on the GOP side who privately are not happy about all of this. If McCain somehow manages to win this November, it is Sarah Palin who will be next in line for the party’s presidential nomination whether it would be at the end of a McCain first or second term — not Mitt Romney or the other contenders.

It’s early. Let’s give her a chance to show her stuff. But in the end, we may look back at this risky choice as having sealed John McCain’s defeat in November.

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