No Experience Necessary
How Sarah Palin made the GOP change its mind about presidential qualifications.
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In a famous example of ideological flexibility, the American Communist Party changed its mind completely about Adolf Hitler in 1939, when he signed a deal with Stalin. Previously, they hadn't cared for him much. Suddenly, he looked pretty good. Then two years later, when Hitler ratted on the deal and invaded the Soviet Union, the Communists changed their minds again. Both times, it took only days.
But now, thanks to the Internet, the same kind of conversion can take place in hours or even minutes. And although it's hard to find many Communists around these days, we happen to have just the party for the job.
It seems like just yesterday that the Republican Party was complaining about Barack Obama's lack of foreign-policy "experience." As a matter of fact, as I write (on Friday, Aug. 29) it actually was just yesterday. Even now, the Republican National Committee's main anti-Obama Web site has the witty address www.notready08.com. The contrast in experience, especially foreign-policy experience, between McCain and Obama was supposed to be the central focus of McCain's campaign.
But that's so five minutes ago, before Sarah Palin. Already, conservative pundits are coming up with creative explanations for McCain's choice of a vice-presidential running mate with essentially no foreign-policy experience. First prize so far goes to Michael Barone, who notes on the U.S. News & World Report blog that "Alaska is the only state with a border with Russia. And it is the only state with territory, in the Aleutian Islands, occupied by the enemy in World War II." I think we need to know what Sarah Palin has done, in her year and change as governor of Alaska, to protect the freedom of the Aleutian Islands before deciding how many foreign-policy-experience credits she deserves on their account.
The official response to the question of experience emerged within hours and is only slightly more plausible: She may not have foreign policy experience, but—unlike Obama, Joe Biden, or even John McCain—she has had executive experience. Why, before her stint as governor of Alaska, population 670,000, she was mayor of a town of 9,000. Remember when the Republicans mocked Bill Clinton for being governor of a "small state"? That would be Arkansas, population 2.8 million. As it happens, 670,000 is the population of metropolitan Little Rock.
The whole "experience" debate is silly. Under our system of government, there is only one job that gives you both executive and foreign-policy experience, and that's the one McCain and Obama are running for. Nevertheless, it's a hardy perennial: If your opponent is a governor, you accuse him or her of lacking foreign-policy experience. If he or she is a member of Congress, you say this person has never run anything. And if, by any chance, your opponent has done both, you say that he or she is a "professional politician." When Republicans aren't complaining about someone's lack of experience, they are calling for term limits.
That's why the important point about Palin's lack of experience isn't about Palin. It's about McCain. And the question is not how his choice of Palin might complicate his ability to use the "experience" issue, or whether he will have to drop experience as an issue. It's not even about the proper role of experience as an issue. In fact, it's not about experience at all. It's about honesty. The question should be whether McCain—and all the other Republicans who have been going on for months about Obama's dangerous lack of foreign-policy experience—ever meant a word of it. And the answer is apparently not. Many conservative pundits woke up this very morning fully prepared to harp on Obama's alleged lack of experience for months more. Now they face the choice of either executing a Communist-style U-turn ("Experience? Feh! Who needs it?") or trying to keep a straight face while touting the importance of having been mayor of a town of 9,000 if you later find yourself president of a nation of 300 million.
We all know that modern political campaigns choose their issues from the cafeteria line after market-testing them and then having them professionally framed. Rarely, though, are we offered such a clear and unarguable example. How could anyone truly believe that Barack Obama's background and job history are inadequate experience for a president and simultaneously believe that Sarah Palin's background and job history are perfectly adequate? It's possible to believe one or the other. But both? Simply not possible. John McCain has been—what's the word?—lying. And so have all the pundits who rushed to defend McCain's choice.
This is especially damning to McCain because his case for himself (besides not being Barack Obama, a standard under which many of us might qualify) has rested on his honor and integrity. The North Vietnamese couldn't break him, and neither could the Brahmins of his own party in the Senate. He was a maverick who always told it straight. So much for that.
Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.
Photograph of John McCain and Sarah Palin by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images. Photograph of Palin on Slate's home page by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.