Saturday, August 30, 2008

Rolling a hard six

Most conservatives I’ve read are hailing John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin. A partial exception is Ramesh Ponnuru. Let’s examine his reservations:

“Palin has been governor for about two minutes. Thanks to McCain’s decision, Palin could be commander-in-chief next year. That may strike people as a reckless choice; it strikes me that way. And McCain's age raised the stakes on this issue.”

This raises a number of issues:

i) Suppose, instead of Palin, McCain had tapped someone like Richard Perle to be his Veep. Few men have more foreign policy or national security experience than Perle. Perle would have no difficulty stepping into the job if McCain were sidelined.

If McCain had chosen Perle instead of Palin, would the liberal media be hailing McCain’s choice? Would they be praising Perle’s magnificent credentials? I don’t think so.

Whoever McCain were to pick, the liberal media would pounce.

ii) I agree with Ramesh that, at present, Palin would be underqualified to take over from McCain in a crisis. But I’d rather see her at the helm than Obama or Biden. And I also prefer to her Ridge or Romney or Lieberman.

iii) We also need to distinguish between personal qualifications and professional qualifications. I suspect the spontaneous approval with which her nomination was greeted was due in large part, not to her profession experience, but her life-experience. Many conservatives identify with her life-experience. They’re less concerned with what’s on her resume than with her personal views, and the way she lives what she believes, day in and day out.

They also like a candidate who knows the price of gas because she fills her own gas tank.

“As a political matter, it undercuts the case against Obama. Conservatives are pointing out that it is tricky for the Obama campaign to raise the issue of her inexperience given his own, and note that the presidency matters more than the vice-presidency. But that gets things backward. To the extent the experience, qualifications, and national-security arguments are taken off the table, Obama wins.”

Several more issues:

i) This is true up to a point, but it’s exaggerated. It’s not as though McCain was always running against Obama’s Veep or Hillary’s Veep (if she’d gotten the nomination instead of Obama).

ii) Because Obama is vulnerable on the issue of inexperience, he tried to recast the issue in terms of judgment over experience. But it’s not as if McCain ever cast the issue in reverse: experience over judgment. Not only does McCain have more experience than Obama, but McCain also thinks he has better judgment than Obama—or Biden.

iii) My reasons don’t have to duplicate the reasons given by one campaign or another. I can have my own reasons.

For example, Biden has more experience than Palin, but he lacks judgment. He has the wrong worldview. So his experience is useless. If you plug experience into the wrong worldview, the output is no better than the input. For good or ill, your worldview filters your experience.

iv) In addition, there are different kinds of experience. We all know about well-credentialed time-servers who hold one high-level position after another. They have a great-looking resume.

Yet they never distinguished themselves. They never made a difference.

Holding a high-level position is not, itself, an accomplishment. It’s what you do with it that matters. What to you have to show for your time in office? What did you do to make things better?

“And it’s not just foreign policy. Palin has no experience dealing with national domestic issues, either.”

True. On the other hand, she has executive experience, which is more than we can say for Obama, Biden, or McCain.

Also, gubernatorial experience can tie into national domestic issues. Take the issue of energy.

“Tokenism. Can anyone say with a straight face that Palin would have gotten picked if she were a man?”

i) There’s a catch-22 here. On the one hand, the GOP is faulted for not reaching out to women or minorities. But when it does reach out, that’s “cynical,” that’s “tokenism.”

Does Ramesh think the GOP shouldn’t tap talented women or minorities because that would be “tokenism”—or be seen as tokenism?

In that case, how could you ever get started? How could you ever recruit anyone different?

ii) Tokenism is choosing a person just because of his or her identity, without any regard to other qualifications.

Is that what McCain did? Does Palin bring nothing to the ticket besides her chromosomes? No.

Imagine the reaction from the party base if McCain had chosen Olympia Snow or Christie Todd Whitman for the job instead of Sarah Palin!

There’s nothing wrong with making a pragmatic choice or tactical calculation as long as the person you choose also has the right views and values.

You have to win before you can govern. And it’s possible to make principled choices which also help you win. That’s prudent and perfectly ethical.

“Compatibility. It doesn’t seem as though McCain knows Palin well. Do we have much reason to think they would work well together? “

What alternative candidate did Ramesh have in mind? Joe Lieberman?

“Debates. Maybe, as Jonah said the other day, Biden will look like a bully going up against her—and maybe she’ll shine. But I can think of a lot of other picks who would have been lower-risk.”

It’s a tradeoff. She brings some potential assets to the campaign that safer candidates would not. The more you gamble, the more you can either win or lose. McCain is rolling a hard six.

Sometimes he runs a little ahead of Obama, sometimes a little behind. I assume he wanted something that would break the stalemate. A tie-breaker.

“I am not even sure that the pick will have quite the galvanizing effect on conservatives that it seems to be having now as it sinks in. The concerns I’ve mentioned here—about her readiness and her credentials—are the kind of thing that many conservative voters take seriously.”

Frankly, I have far fewer problems with Palin than McCain (not to mention Obama and Biden). And I like her a lot more than some of the other names that were floated (e.g. Ridge, Romney, Lieberman).


  1. Among the candidates who were commonly discussed, I was hoping for John Kasich or Tim Pawlenty. But I agree that Palin is better than somebody like Romney or Ridge.

    I don’t know a lot about her, but she seems to be relatively good on domestic issues and in terms of her background and accomplishments, for example. I have reservations on some points, such as her knowledge of foreign policy and her debating skills. I expect some segments of the media to try to do to her what they did to Dan Quayle and the younger George Bush. I expect her to be asked a lot of questions about foreign affairs, often with the intention of making her look bad. She’ll probably receive more scrutiny than Joe Biden and be criticized for her past mistakes more than Biden has been criticized for his.

    Though I don’t agree with every point he makes, I agree with the general thrust of Mark Steyn’s analysis:

    “Next to her resume, a guy who's done nothing but serve in the phony-baloney job of ‘community organizer’ and write multiple autobiographies looks like just another creepily self-absorbed lifelong member of the full-time political class that infests every advanced democracy. Second, it can't be in Senator Obama's interest for the punditocracy to spends its time arguing about whether the Republicans' vice-presidential pick is ‘even more’ inexperienced than the Democrats' presidential one. Third, real people don't define ‘experience’ as appearing on unwatched Sunday-morning talk shows every week for 35 years and having been around long enough to have got both the War on Terror and the Cold War wrong. (On the first point, at the Gun Owners of New Hampshire dinner in the 2000 campaign, I remember Orrin Hatch telling me sadly that he was stunned to discover how few Granite State voters knew who he was.) Sarah Palin and Barack Obama are more or less the same age, but Governor Palin has run a state and a town and a commercial fishing operation, whereas (to reprise a famous line on the Rev Jackson) Senator Obama ain't run nothin' but his mouth. She's done the stuff he's merely a poseur about. Post-partisan? She took on her own party's corrupt political culture directly while Obama was sucking up to Wright and Ayers and being just another get-along Chicago machine pol (see his campaign's thuggish attempt to throttle Stanley Kurtz and Milt Rosenberg on WGN the other night).”

    The choice of Palin does diminish the McCain campaign’s argument concerning experience, but it doesn’t eliminate that argument, and it diminishes the argument less than is commonly suggested.

    I don’t know much about her religious beliefs, but, apparently, Palin would qualify as an Evangelical by some common definitions. Here’s an article about her religious background. I imagine that she truly is a Christian, but probably with the sort of immaturity that’s usually required to get far in the current political climate. I’m not suggesting that she’s immature in every conceivable way. From what I’ve heard, she’s done many commendable things that reflect a Christian worldview, both in her non-political life and in terms of her political activity. But while people often point to Evangelicals in high political offices as evidence of society’s acceptance of Evangelicalism, the Evangelicals who hold such offices tend to get there and remain there by means of a lot of compromise.

    How likely is it that George Bush would have been reelected in 2004 if he had responded to the religious ecumenism surrounding the terrorist attacks of 2001 as a mature Christian should have? What if he hadn’t attended religious ceremonies with Muslims, Mormons, and other non-Christians, hadn’t said that such people believe in and pray to the same God he does, etc.? What if Rush Limbaugh had criticized the memorial services after September 11, 2001, as they deserved to be criticized? What if Hugh Hewitt had criticized Mitt Romney’s Mormonism and had spent a significant amount of time discussing the dangers of giving such a political office to a Mormon? What if Ronald Reagan had treated Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and other false belief systems as faithfulness to Jesus Christ would demand?

    You can be a Christian and get far in American politics, as a governor, as a president, as a talk show host, or in some other capacity. But a lot of compromise is usually required. The American people are largely immature, and you have to be similarly immature or accommodate that immaturity in order to appeal to them in some contexts. I would rather have somebody like Ronald Reagan, George Bush, or Sarah Palin than somebody like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barrack Obama. But we should be more realistic than people often are about what it takes for an Evangelical to succeed in the current political environment.

    My initial impression is that Palin will help the McCain campaign more than she hurts it. I still expect McCain to win, and the choice of Palin makes that outcome even more likely.

  2. And I expect some people to try to tie Palin with a controversial religious figure, as they did with John McCain and John Hagee, as if the relationship is comparable to Barack Obama's relationships with Jeremiah Wright and Michael Pfleger.