Ever since Republican presidential nominee John McCain selected Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate, there has been much discussion among the punditocracy concerning her qualifications to serve as Vice President, or should something happen to the 72-year-old McCain, as President. Many have compared and contrasted her resume to that of Democratic nominee Barack Obama. On the surface, this seems like a useful comparison. Both are young by the standards of national politics (he's 47, and she is 44); and neither have the lengthy resumes of their respective running mates. Much of the debate has focused on which "big time" position (governor vs U.S. Senator) is better preparation for the Presidency, with Palin's supporters claiming in particular that the executive responsibilities of Palin's current job trump the national scope of Obama's.
This is, of course, an apples-to-oranges comparison. A better comparison for Obama might be JFK--the last sitting Senator to be elected to the White House. (JFK, it seems, did alright). As for Palin, it is probably more useful to compare her to with the governors who have been elected to the Presidency in the past forty years.
Governors often have an advantage in running for the Presidency, as they are frequently viewed as having greater independence from the politics of Washington, D.C. They also have a disadvantage in that their job description (as governors) excludes any significant work in foreign policy and military affairs--this is true even for states which border a foreign country. Governors do send and receive trade delegations and participate in cultural exchanges, and they do have command of state National Guard units in times of peace--but they do not engage in treaty negotiations, wage war or deploy troops, direct covert activities, represent the nation in diplomacy, or do any of the other things which the President, as head of state and commander-in-chief, is charged with on a day-to-day basis.
How have the four prior governors to serve in the White House done, particularly in international affairs? Results are mixed.
Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan oversaw foreign policies which are mostly regarded as successful. Reagan was rather bellicose in his dealings with certain unfriendly nations in the Western Hemisphere, most notably Nicaragua; and his Mideast policy wasn't terribly productive. On the other hand, his dealings with Moscow--the biggest threat to US security at the time--worked. Bill Clinton excelled at foreign relations--the reputation of the United States abroad was enhanced by his administration, and he didn't achieve this result by giving away the store. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was wholly unprepared to deal with the Ayatollah Khomeini's of the world; he had trouble dealing with an ostensibly friendly congress. While Carter is a noble individual, he lacked the political skills to operate on either the national or the international stage. But his foreign policy was nowhere as ruinous as that of George W. Bush, whose foreign policy is at best incompetent, and at worst, criminal.
How would Governor Palin fare, should she become President?
It is hard to say at the moment, given we know little about her. (The fact that she doesn't have an extensive record--of executive or legislative accomplishments, or at the least of verifiable public positions and statements on the major issues, is itself a red flag). Clinton has long been known as a "policy wonk", and is one of the most intelligent and studied men to ever hold the office--it is one of the tragedies of our age that his intellectual talents were betrayed by his poor self-control. Reagan did not possess Clinton's intellect, but he proved to be a deft manager, one who surrounded himself with talented and knowledgeable individuals and took their advice. Reagan wasn't beholden to ideology, and he wasn't afraid to be challenged by a subordinate. On the other hand, Bush's poor management skills--his apparent need to be surrounded with yes-men, and his elevation of loyalty and ideology above all else--are well-chronicled. Carter was also ideologically driven--although his ideology is far less poisonous than that of George W. Bush, he still lacked the political chops for the job. (Many on the right have compared Barack Obama with Carter; but the fact of the matter is that Obama has far greater political skills and instincts than Jimmy Carter ever did, which makes such comparisons questionable, at best).
Which of the four does Sarah Palin most resemble? Her record is paper-thin; but on the surface she seems to resemble Dubya. Bush had no meaningful experience in government prior to his service as governor of Texas--a state in which the governor's office has very little power. While mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, she developed a reputation for demanding loyalty from her subordinates; one of her first acts upon her election to the (non-partisan!) post was to fire the existing (and experienced) city administrators, replacing them with loyalists. Her invocation of the Almighty in defense of the Iraq war is troubling at best. Her apparent belief that God wants an oil pipeline (!!) is either cynical in the extreme, or--if Governor Palin truly believes this--downright scary. It is one thing to invoke religion in the great moral debates of our time (such as war and peace, abortion, civil rights, and economic justice); it is another to claim divine support for an energy infrastructure project.
Other troubling similarities exist as well. Bush is not known for his keen intellect. Not much is known about Palin's intelligence at this point. But her knowledge of history seems to be questionable; such as her anachronistic suggestion (on an political questionnaire) that the Founding Fathers wanted "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. She reportedly attended five different colleges in pursuit of her bachelor's degree in journalism. Whether this was due to poor academic performance or for other reasons, is not publicly known.
What both Bush and Palin do seem to possess in great abundance--something that many recent Democratic nominees for the White House do not--is that alpha-dog "it" factor--strong interpersonal skills, "charm" and "charisma", which make them incredibly good salespeople, and thus formidable political opponents. Bush's ability to neutralize the Washington press corps with a firm handshake--at least until his utter incompetence became too gross to ignore--is stuff of legend. Palin has similarly dazzled the media with her "story" and her convention speech (and the GOP's flagrant play of the gender card--which is comically ironic given the Right's rough treatment of Hillary Clinton over the past fifteen years). McCain appears to have realized a sizable "bounce" from the GOP convention, mostly due to the presence of Palin on the ticket.
The strategy by the Democrats over the course of the campaign has been to try and tie McCain to Bush. It's a good strategy; the President is highly unpopular for good reason; and McCain did little to counter Bush while in the Senate. (And we are to think he'll be different if elected to the White House?) But it seems apparent that the real George Bush clone on the GOP ticket this year isn't Senator McCain--who has, at least, occasionally shown glimmers of competence and of independent thought during his long career. It's Sarah Palin. And the last thing this country needs in these dangerous times is to be led by yet another insecure, trigger happy, violence-glorifying, glory-seeking, sycophant-surrounding, reckless and rowdy, cynical and apathetic, intellectually mediocre, ideologically inflexible, God-at-my-side frat boy. Or in this case, beauty queen.
Even if she does have, as the dog-waggers in the GOP inner sanctum like to tell us, a compelling story.