The homepage of the town of Wasilla, Alaska (population 5469 as of the last census), has links to three news stories. The lead story, as you might expect, is that the town's former mayor, Sarah Palin, has been named John McCain's running mate. The second story announces the town's new website. The third advertises the "Baby and Me Lap Sit-Program at the Library."Tyler Cowen:
Before serving as Wasila's mayor, Sarah Palin earned a B.A. at the University of Idaho, worked as a sports reporter for an Anchorage television station, and did commercial fishing with her husband.
At age 72, John McCain has already lived longer than his father, John McCain Jr., who died at age 70.
Sarah Palin looks like an interesting woman, but let's hope she doesn't have to stare down Vladimir Putin any time soon.
Around the blogosphere you will see many left-wing writers criticizing Palin for lack of experience. Maybe this criticism is correct, but these commentators are falling into The Trap. Most American voters do not themselves know much detail about foreign affairs and their vision of an experienced leader does not require such knowledge. Was it demanded from Reagan? Doesn't everyone agree that Cheney and Rumsfeld knew plenty?My take: There are two questions to be asked here -- 1) the positive (what is/how things really work) and 2) the normative (what should be). Let me address the positive question first.
Rightly or wrongly, many American voters will view Palin's stint as mayor of small town, her background in sports, her role in a beauty contest (yes), her trials raising teenage children, and her decision to stick with her principles and have a Downs Syndrome baby as all very valuable and relevant forms of experience.
The more the word "experience" is repeated, no matter what the context, the more it will hurt Obama. Palin needs to appear confident and capable on TV and in the debates, but her ticket is not going to lose votes if she cannot properly spell Kyrgyzstan or for that matter place it on a map.
I think most voters want a politician who reflects their personal values. While in an ideal world, most people would like a candidate with some experience, they have an even stronger preference for someone who is like them. Like everything else in life, there is a trade-off to be had here and it's a relative, not an absolute preference.
Below is a hypothetical graph showing the concept of relative trade-offs voters may be willing to make.
In this conception of voter preference, voters are equally happy with a candidate anywhere along the blue line -- being just as happy with someone with strongly aligned values and little experience as they are with moderately aligned values and lots of experience. (Note that there is a limit to how low the voters are willing to tolerate a candidate who has values different from their own.)
Using this as a framework, if voters have the choice of two candidates with the same values, they prefer the more experienced one; and if they have the choice between two candidates with the same experience, they prefer the one who has values more closely aligned to their own. This concept is captured by the red line being above the blue line. Any candidate possessing the combination of values-experience shown along the red line is preferred to any candidate possessing the combination of values-experience shown along the blue line.
I believe this describes how many voters select their candidates. As such, it explains why some voters are willing to support candidates with less experience (such as Palin and Obama) while others prefer candidates with more experience (such as Biden and McCain). Interestingly each party has selected one "value candidate" (Obama and Palin) and one "experience candidate" (McCain and Biden) for their platform.
Most of the criticisms I hear about the various candidates also boils down to them not passing some minimum standard the criticizer holds for what values/experience/intellect/etc. they believe to be necessary to be successful in office. The difficulty in holding meaningful conversations about politics is that these determinations tend to be highly subjective and not always easy to articulate or explain/understand how we formulate them. This lead us into part two...
In many ways, this is a more difficult issue to analyze. The normative question is how should a candidate be selected (or perhaps more precisely, what makes for a good president)? This is a difficult question to answer because many people are looking for different things from their president. Some people want a strong commander-in-chief who is able to effectively command the military to protect America from real and perceived (and everyone has different perceptions) threats from abroad. Others want a president who will lower their taxes. Others are looking for jobs and want a candidate who will stimulate the economy to create new jobs. Some want better retirement programs, others want balanced budgets, etc., etc. With so many subjective goals out there, it is utterly impossible to say who would be best at accomplishing all of them. Particularly so given that many of these goals may be contradictory.
Having said this, I don't think that means there are no objective qualities a president should have. A shortlist might include:
- Above average intelligence (although past a certain point, too much may become more of a drawback as it can make people less open to the thoughts and feedback of others).
- Political savvy (the ability to inspire others and work within the political context to accomplish goals and maintain popular support).
- Confidence (although again, too much could become a detriment).
- Public poise.
- Ability to handle stress.
- Humility (often in short-supply among many politicians).
I'm not exactly sure how to answer all of these questions other than to say I'm unconvinced that direct experience matters quite as much as many people think it does. What probably matters more is for a candidate to possess high levels of the attributes listed above. Where experience most likely has its largest effect is in giving people (both voters and other world leaders) confidence in a particular candidate -- not so much in preparing that candidate for a specific job.