Thursday, September 04, 2008

Governor Sarah Palin

September 4, 2008, 9:40 a.m., 12:30, 6:15 p.m.

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Palin by Comparison

I like Sarah Palin.

No, I don't mean what I now understand to be her positions regarding tax cuts and federal deficits, energy policy, abortion (valuing the life of a fetus over the life of a mother), teaching creationism in the schools, utilization of earmarks, guns, global warming, gay marriage and civil unions, relying on abstinence as a birth control method in reducing teen pregnancy -- among others. I suspect were we to spend an evening "vetting" each others' positions on issues we'd find relatively little we agree on. (I've said the same, and more, about Governor Mike Huckabee. Nicholas Johnson, Are We There Yet? (2008), Part II. Candidates/Governor Mike Huckabee. I really like Mike Huckabee, and his opening last evening was another demonstration of one of the reasons why.)

Nor do I mean that I liked "her" speech.

Don't get me wrong. It was a great speech (though I'm not fond of substituting snide attacks on one's opponent for a discussion of the issues). I mean it probably served well the Republican campaign. Matthew Scully, who wrote it, is a master wordsmith. After all he wrote President George W. Bush's first four State of the Union messages, among other political writing over the years. Who better to write the speeches and talking points for "Bush's third term"? I just mean it wasn't "her speech." (For a kind of "truth squad" evaluation of some of the charges see, Jim Kuhnhenn, "Attacks, praise stretch truth at GOP convention," Associated Press/Yahoo! News, September 3, 2008, 11:48 p.m. ET.)

That's certainly not a criticism of Governor Palin. Senator Obama is not unfamiliar with the teleprompter. And Senator McCain's constant looking down at notes only draws attention to the fact he's uttering someone else's words as well as significantly impairing his effectiveness as a speaker. Public officials, especially during a campaign sometimes requiring ten appearances a day, can be excused for relying on speech writers. And she, Senator McCain -- indeed the entire Republican Party -- had an enormous amount riding on it being a good performance.

Which it was. Being able to deliver a speech not entirely one's own to a very large crowd -- persuasively, emotionally, and with humor -- is an ability not unrelated to one's effectiveness as president. I thought she really "sold the lines," as we say, and did everything she was called upon to do.

Things had, after all, moved rather rapidly -- for her, the media, and the rest of the nation. Elisabeth Bumiller, "Palin Disclosures Raise Questions On Vetting," New York Times, September 1, 2008 ("Aides to Mr. McCain said they had a team on the ground in Alaska now to look more thoroughly into Ms. Palin’s background. A Republican with ties to the campaign said the team assigned to vet Ms. Palin in Alaska had not arrived there until Thursday, a day before Mr. McCain stunned the political world with his vice-presidential choice. The campaign was still calling Republican operatives as late as Sunday night asking them to go to Alaska to deal with the unexpected candidacy of Ms. Palin."). (I have a memory of having read, or heard, somewhere that the Times, challenged by the McCain campaign on this story, is standing by it.)

One of the most knowledgeable and insightful persons to comment about her qualifications is a member of the Alaska legislature -- who also likes her. Mike Doogan, "She's Nice -- but Not Ready," Washington Post, September 3, 2008, p. A15 ("Palin brings some pluses to the campaign. She's a woman. She's young. She's from outside the Beltway. The Christian right likes her. She's comfortable on TV -- she has a degree in journalism -- and is adept at connecting with people on a personal level. And she is very, very competitive. . . . [H]er role in killing the ballyhooed 'Bridge to Nowhere'? Turns out that she was for it before she was against it, and that, well, she kept the money anyway. . . . [T]he state government isn't running all that well: commissioners and key staffers jumping or being pushed. The operating budget growing 10 percent a year. . . . The governor and her aides being investigated by the legislature. You can see why it's not clear she's a competent governor of Alaska, let alone qualified to take over the reins of the national government."). And see, Brian Ross, Joseph Rhee and Len Tepper, "Fired Alaskan Official Says Palin Hasn't Been Truthful; Monegan Says He Was Fired For His Refusal to Fire Governor's Former Brother-In-Law," ABC News, September 4, 2008; Brian Ross and Joseph Rhee, "Another Controversy for Sarah Palin; Former Police Chief Says He Was Fired for Challenging Palin's Campaign Contributors," ABC News, September 3, 2008; Justin Rood, "Palin Fought Polar Bear Protections; Governor Discounted the Findings of Nine Recent USGS Studies," ABC News, August 31, 2008.

So she was coached on the delivery. I suspect that wasn't the first time that has occurred either.

Anticipating the importance of Palin's debut before a national audience, McCain speechwriter Matthew Scully spent days working on the speech, and she rehearsed it repeatedly as McCain aides offered coaching. Before she delivered it, they began an all-out effort to defend her and take the offensive against her critics, mobilizing surrogates to tell her story and accusing journalists of creating a "faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee."
Here's the link to that Post page-one story, Michael D. Shear, "Palin Comes Out Fighting; GOP Nominates McCain After Running Mate Attacks Obama on Experience," Washington Post, September 4, 2008, p. A1.

And here's the Times' take: "The speech was the first public emergence for Ms. Palin since arriving here Sunday, two days after Mr. McCain named her as his running mate. Ms. Palin has spent her time in a hotel suite with her husband, Todd, and their five children preparing for her speech and the questions on foreign policy, national security and family matters that she will face from the news media when the McCain campaign makes her available to reporters. . . ." Elisabeth Bumiller and Michael Cooper, "Palin Assails Critics and Electrifies Party," New York Times, September 4, 2008.

I used to like Bill Clinton, and stopped as a result of his campaign tactics against Senator Obama. The same thing could happen with my reactions to Governor Palin if she keeps up the ad hominum attacks on Obama and continues to avoid issues. Understand, I'd never vote for her, and frankly the thought of her having to walk into the oval office alone scares me a little. But I still like her. She's got spunk. She's articulate (especially when permitted to speak without scripts and coaches). She's attractive. And she's going to be appealing to a lot of voters, I think.

Aside from partisanship, and aside from the chattering classes and policy wonks, the reactions to her are going to turn on folks comfort zone -- as they did for me in my congressional primary race. I always felt those who voted for me, and those who preferred someone else (numbers that, by my count, differed by only six), both saw me accurately. Those who voted for me liked the idea of someone who (at that time only) had a modest measure of celebrity, contacts in Hollywood (some of whom came to the district to help with the campaign), Washington and the financial community in New York that could be drawn upon to help the District (my memory -- often faulty -- is that the Wall Street Journal reported at one point that I had more up front money from contributors, including Republicans, than any other newcomer running for Congress that year). They thought someone like that was just what the district needed. Young professionals, including even some Republicans, were attracted to that. On the other hand, there were slightly more who found that discomforting, something they found it hard to relate to. They preferred someone more like their neighbor down the road. Not incidentally, after the primaries were over, and the general election was held, the person they ended up choosing was a former state legislator, and now our own Iowa Senator, Chuck Grassley.

I think the choice between Palin and Obama is going to be like that. Both will be perceived relatively accurately by voters. Many -- whether it turns out to be "most" will decide who ends up in the White House -- will feel much more comfortable with what they see in Governor Palin. They'll like what I like about her -- and either also like her ideology and policy positions, or be unaware of what they are. Others will be more comfortable with what they see in Obama, what he represents (in every sense), and their attraction to Michelle as well.

The "Experience" Debate is Getting Silly

Senator McCain "told ABC News in an interview on Wednesday that 'Sarah Palin has 24,000 employees in the state government' and was 'responsible for 20 percent of the nation’s energy supply.'” Elisabeth Bumiller and Michael Cooper, "Palin Assails Critics and Electrifies Party," New York Times, September 4, 2008.

Last evening on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," former Speaker Newt Gingrich was the guest. Stewart noted that some Republicans are arguing that Palin has foreign policy credentials because Alaska is close to Russia. Gingrich responded that when comparing the executive experience of Palin to that of Obama and Biden "You can't find a single executive decision that either has made in their entire career." To which Stewart responded that the same would have to be said about McCain -- to which Gingrich candidly acknowledged, "That's exactly right." (The exchange occurs at roughly 3:30-4:00 minutes into the interview.)

Similarly, Fred Thompson acknowledged last evening during his speech at the Convention, "Now, being a POW certainly doesn't qualify anyone to be president." (He went on to say, "but it does reveal character.") It's something the McCain campaign needs to consider.

Senator Joe Biden once said of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, "Rudy Giuliani, probably the most under-qualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency . . . I mean, think about it! Rudy Giuliani. There's only three things he mentions in a sentence -- a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There's nothing else!"

The McCain campaign risks a similar attack when it brings every question back to McCain's POW status. ("How many homes does he have? Seven? You forgot to count the 'Hanoi Hilton.'") Military service should be honored; and it's certainly not irrelevant to a president's understanding of war and defense budgets. But it's not even the equivalent of having served as Secretary of Defense, let alone president. Fred Thompson's right; it doesn't qualify someone to be "commander-in-chief," or to deal with the other responsibilities of the U.S. president. In fact, McCain's military service is demeaned by making more of it than is credible.

(For a Palin-favorable to neutral explanation of the job of the Alaska governor, and how the state differs from others, see Kirk Johnson, "The Unusual Challenges Palin Faced in Alaska," New York Times, September 3, 2008.)

I've written at some length about the relevance of "experience" to the responsibilities of a president, what we should mean by "experience" in that context, and how, why and when it can appropriately be used, and with what weight, in comparing the qualifications of candidates for office prior to selecting the one you want to support. Nicholas Johnson, Are We There Yet? (2008), Part III. Experience. So I'm not going to repeat all of that here beyond this summary.

I do not think that "experience," however defined, is necessarily the most important quality to weigh in picking a candidate. I think raw intelligence, a liberal arts education from a good, though not necessarily most prestigious and expensive school (that is, at least a smattering of knowledge about a wide range of subjects), world travel (if observant and open to new experiences), the capacity of "a quick study" (that is, while knowing one's limitations, the ability to quickly pick up enough understanding of a new subject to ask the most appropriate questions of those who are more knowledgeable), a judicious mind (that is, the ability to base decisions on data and science rather than ideology, and to hold judgments in abeyance without knee-jerk conclusions until having heard all sides), a genuine liking for people and the capacity for empathy and understanding of their lives and challenges, and at least a dollop of "common sense-wisdom-judgment." Of course a basic honesty, commitment to transparency in government, ethical and moral sense -- and since the president is, above all else, the nation's personnel director, an ability to judge people, and to choose those who will make the president look good because they are better than the president, rather than because, by comparison, the president is clearly better than them.

So I can imagine someone with virtually no "experience" in the sense we talk about it nonetheless not only being "qualified" to be president, but being more qualified than someone with superior "experience." Vice President Dick Cheney may be one of the best examples from among many. After all he had an understanding of White House operations as a result of having served as President Ford's White House Chief of Staff, he had the legislative experience, and knowledge of the Congress, from six terms in the House and his service as minority Whip, his experience with the federal executive branch included having served as President George H.W. Bush's Secretary of Defense (which also provided him some understanding and "experience" with regard to national defense), and his experience at administration/management of large institutions included, in addition to Secretary of Defense, having served as CEO of Halliburton. Notwithstanding all of that "experience," I suspect that there are some Republicans, as well as the Democrats, who would find him lacking on the other qualities just enumerated.

If one is to consider the "experience to be president," "passing the commander-in-chief" test, ability to handle that "3:00 a.m. phone call," what's most relevant, in my view, is a breadth of experience. What city, county and state government are like -- especially in their relations with the federal. The various branches of federal government -- cabinet departments, independent administrative agencies, the judiciary, the Senate and House, and the White House. Foreign relations experience (as distinguished from foreign policy experience, as Secretary of State (or other high position in the Department), UN ambassador, work with the World Bank or other international organization, or ambassador to any country, work on negotiating treaties, and so forth. An understanding of the military that comes, not just from service (which is also of value), but from having been National Security Adviser, Secretary of Defense (or other high position in the Department), Director of the CIA, and so forth. Finally (or perhaps first), is managerial/administrative experience. Not the experience of overseeing a senator's office staff, or McCain's time as a squadron commander, or any other administrative position that's pretty "hands-on," where you know and work directly with those you are supervising. But the experience of leading, of administering, an institution with thousands of employees, and tens of thousands of other stakeholders, where you simply out of necessity must use means other than personal contact with everyone (such as CEO of a major corporation, one of our nation's largest universities, or hospitals, governor of a state, mayor of a big city -- as well as federal cabinet, or even sub-cabinet, positions).

Measured by these standards none of the senators prominent in this year's primaries, and ultimately selected -- Senators McCain, Obama, Biden and Clinton -- can offer any "experience" other than legislative, and that, for three of them, limited to the U.S. Senate. (Ironically, Senator Obama can claim the most, by these standards, because he has gained some insight into state-federal relations by having served in a state legislature as well as the Senate.) All of which raises the question (the question, not the irrefutable answer) of the extent to which even this very limited (in terms of breadth) "stovepipe" experience is an example of the difference between "twenty-five years' experience, and one year's experience twenty-five times."

And I might add, by these standards, Governor Palin trumps them all -- including, as Speaker Gingrich conceded last evening -- her own presidential running mate, John McCain. However small the town, however few people live in Alaska, however short the time she's served as mayor and governor, she does have "experience" that none of the four senators do.

Does that mean I think she's the most qualified to be president? Absolutely not. The notion of her having to move into the oval office sometime in 2009 frightens me. I would feel much more comfortable with Senator Biden having to assume that role -- notwithstanding the fact he's never been a mayor or a governor.

So who else might McCain have picked? Until yesterday the thought never crossed my mind (I'm embarrassed to confess, since I should have thought of it), but I'm suddenly encountering more and more people who are now asking me, "Don't you think Dr. Condoleezza Rice would have been a more sensible choice?" The only downside I see to that idea would be her ties to the Bush Administration. Aside from that I think she'd be dynamite. Can you imagine the contrast between her and Governor Palin going toe-to-toe with Biden over foreign policy?

Well, we're off and running. Exactly two months from today we'll find out what this multi-billion-dollar campaign has produced.

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sajohnson said...

I was speaking with a couple of supervisors in Operations at Metro (the D.C. subway system) the other day who asked the exact same question -- why not Condoleezza Rice?

My guess is that the choice of Palin was a cynical one -- an attempt to rally the conservative Christian right, and a rather pathetic reach out to disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters.

I think McCain has made a huge blunder that will cost him the election.

Doug Wagner said...

Having written speeches for officials at all levels, you take the salient issues and create a speech, which incorporates the proper positions, and write the speech in their voice. This was successful in Sarah Palin, and even more impressive is the fact that she strayed from script occasionally to make her imprint.

Now, I write this on the evening of the 17th, as newsw has broken that Sarah Palin's personal e-mail account has been hacked and screen captures have been posted on the internet. No one in the media cares...beceause it's Sarah Palin, and she deserves it.

Sarah Palin has done more to put Barack Obama and the Democrat party on the defensive than the collective lines of questioning that all the collective media have engaged in with Obama/Biden.

The Obama camp is so far off their message, and they can no longer control the rabid anger of the national media...which is sucking the air out of their room.

McCain/Palin has made up deficits across the country, and now have nearly 270 electoral votes. Sure, there are 48 days left before hte election, but they have made up huge ground.

sajohnson said...

I can't imagine why the Democratic party would be concerned about Palin.

Sure there are those who will vote for McCain/Palin because of her views on abortion, etc, but there are many more who are absolutely terrified at the thought of a president Palin.

There were so many better choices.