The U.S. President is arguably the single most influential person in world politics. While all political leaders act under complex conditions and constraints, the U.S. President has at his or her disposal enormous powers, including discretionary powers. So it stands to reason that when citizens of a democracy select a President through a democratic electoral process, the question of a candidate's "experience" would loom large. Unfortunately, this question has loomed very large indeed in the current Presidential contest, but in ways that distort and confuse proper understanding. Hyperbole and outright misrepresentation are long-standing features of our electoral process. But they have recently risen to the level of absurdity in the wake of John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin, a little-known Governor of Alaska, as his Vice-Presidential running mate.
McCain has long decried Barack Obama's "lack of experience." His selection of a person who has served for twenty months as Governor of one of the least populous states in the U.S. (Fred Thompson and Rudy Guliani were simply misleading when they described Alaska as the largest state, unless they meant sheer square mileage, in which case Greenland would be one of the largest countries in the world)--whose main political experience is her service as mayor of a town of 7000 residents--seemed to many to undermine his critique of Obama. But, in a feat of political ju jitsu worthy of Karl Rove, the Republicans this week have loudly and unanimously asserted that in fact even Sarah Palin has more "experience" than Obama.
This is absurd. But it is also an occasion to reflect on what experience really means in Presidential politics, when treated as a serious idea and not as a slogan. I submit that there are three ways in which experience is relevant to the suitability of an individual to serve as President.
The world. The most general, and significant, experience at issue is an appreciation of the challenges and complexities of the world, born of the experience of living in the world. Experience here relates to time and space, to an individual's involvement in a range of things in a range of places, so that s/he is familiar with the concerns of many different kinds of people and communities, and is comfortable dealing with these concerns, people, and
communities. This cannot simply be a matter of living long, i.e., being old. It must involve exposure to and engagement with many things. But also, presumably, a demonstrated ability to think intelligently about these experiences, to surround oneself with others who think intelligently, and to make intelligent judgments and public statements about the world. In this sense Barack Obama gives up nothing to John McCain, and far exceeds in experience Sarah Palin. He has lived in many different places, in the U.S. and in the world--Hawaii, Indonesia, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C. He has experienced growing up as a multi-racial child, raised by a single mother, whose accomplishments through academic success exemplify "the American dream." He has experienced the world as a citizen, but also as a serious and successful student, as an educator, as a writer and published author, as a community organizer, and as an elected official. And he has traveled much of the world and has engaged the people he has encountered. But what can be said of Sarah Palin? She has spent almost her entire adult life in Alaska. She has barely traveled. She has no experience of urban America. She has lived an interesting life and has no doubt experienced many challenging and rewarding things as an ambitious young politician, mother, and winter sports enthusiast in Alaska. That she has risen to prominence and demonstrated her own brand of civic commitment in the Alaskan context is evident. But the U.S. President is the most important leader on the world stage. And Sarah Palin is anything but worldly. Yet the Republicans propose to place her a heartbeat away from the Presidency, and have the temerity to exalt her "executive experience."
Politics. Politics is a complicated business. It involves forming and running organizations, leading people, forging alliances, allocating resources. The U.S. President does these things at the level of the world. It may be true that Sarah Palin was a good mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, and that she is a good Governor of Alaska (of course, it may also be false, and those Republicans who typically prate about the venality of politicians have offered as evidence of Palin's executive abilities nothing beyond the fact that she has held these offices). And it may be true that in this sense she has more executive experience than Barack Obama. But what too few commentators have noted is that Sarah Palin has no experience engaging the broad range of issues that confront the Executive Office of the President of the United States. Indeed, by all accounts she has virtually no experience even thinking about these issues in their complexity. Commentators have noted that she gave a rousing performance at the Republican convention (if this were a serious criterion of national leadership, then why not just choose Meryl Streep?) . But there has been a deafening silence about her views regarding serious questions of geopolitics, military policy, tax policy, environmental policy, health policy, or Constitutional affairs. What does Sarah Palin think about these things? Noone seems to know and, appallingly, few seem to care. Instead, she is being touted as a "gun-toting hockey mom." What? Is this what we need at a time when we supposedly face global life and death issues of what candidate McCain has called "transcendent importance?"
At the same time, Barack Obama has worlds of experience dealing with these issues. He studied them at some of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. (in what kind of world beyond Republican conventions is having been a top student at an Ivy League institution a mark of shame?). He taught about them at one of the nation's leading law schools (That's right. He was an educator. Not a car salesman). He dealt with them at the grass roots-level, as a community organizer (Since when do the Republicans, the party of "voluntarism" and "faith-based initiatives" and "compassionate conservatism," sneer at individuals who choose community service over self-aggrandizement?). He has engaged them as a state legislator and U.S. Senator, and though he has not served in these offices for a long time, his service is continuous with his range of experiences, and has also placed him in continuous dialogue with policy-makers and experts. And he has written about these issues, and spoken out about them clearly and intelligently. Obama, in short, has a world of experience thinking about, communicating about, and engaging the most pressing national and international issues. Whether we agree with him or not, we know what he thinks, and we know that his thinking is informed by real inquiry and conversation with others who know what they think, and why.
Electoral Politics. You can't have it both ways. You can't invoke the rhetoric of populism, and then dismiss a Presidential candidate who attracts millions of voters and record crowds as a celebrity. Yes, Barack Obama is sharp, good-looking, and charismatic. He also campaigned in every state of the union; and organized a trend-setting grass-roots effort based on the use of the internet and the mobilization of the young and the raising of huge amounts of funds from small and middling donors; and his performance in debates and primary contests allowed him to come from behind and win the Democratic nomination by attracting over 20 million voters. That is why he is the Democratic Presidential nominee. Because he emerged victorious from the primary electoral process. In a democratic society this, in the end, is the experience that counts most. And having won these elections, he selected as his Vice-Presidential running mate one of his competitors in the primaries, an individual who has served with distinction in the U.S. Senate for decades, and who has twice run his own campaigns for the Presidency. Someone with a level of experience that matches and perhaps exceeds his own, who complements him and who has long been regarded with respect. And who did John McCain choose? Not one of the "experienced" old white men against whom he ran in the primaries, who alone get to participate at the highest levels of Republican politics. Not someone who is his equal in political experience and whose accomplishments and ideas make them a potential leader on the world stage. Instead, this candidate of "national security" and foreign affairs and "wisdom you can trust" selected--apparently without any serious vetting-- a "gun-toting hockey mom" from one of the least populous and least representative states in the nation, a person with no national or international experience who has given no evidence of even having compelling ideas about national or international issues. In the past week we have been treated to the embarrassing spectacle of a level of unanimity about "Sarah Palin, rock star" that would have made Leonid Brezhnev cringe behind Kremlin walls. From Lindsay Graham to Rudy Guliani to Christine Todd Whitman to Tom Kean--Tom Kean!!--we have heard that Sarah Palin is just what the U.S. needs. Is any more evidence required that the Republicans, after eight long years in the White House, are in desperate need of experience out of office, to reflect on the bankruptcy of the Republican Party in the wake of the abysmal Presidency of George W. Bush? If there is political justice, and if the principles of accountability that lie at the heart of a democracy are enacted, then the American people will generously afford them this opportunity.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.