Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Heartbeat Away

Does the experience of presidential candidates really matter? Here are two differing perspectives followed with some of my own commentary.

Russell Korobkin:
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."

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.
Tyler Cowen:
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?

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.
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.


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.
  • Adaptability.
  • Ability to handle stress.
  • Humility (often in short-supply among many politicians).
There are certainly other attributes that could be included, but I don't want to get too caught up in that discussion. The bigger question is what factor experience plays in presidential success and (perhaps more importantly) what kind of experience? How much of what a president does is learned on the job? Is it true that people will rise to the office they find themselves in?

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.


thinking said...

Funny...I don't remember so many conservatives playing down the experience angle when it was McCain attacking Obama for his supposed lack of experience.

Tyler Cowen's analysis apparently is to try to excuse ignorance.

And I'm sorry, but Cowen is flat wrong when he dares to suggest that Reagan lacked experience on foreign policy when he became President.

When Reagan was elected President, he had spent over 20 years thinking about the Cold War and formulating his ideas. Read his letters, his diaries, his articles. This was a man of deep intellectual rigor in this arena, in spite of what his critics may have said.

Reagan had also been governor of our largest state, and one with many international ties, and had been on the national political scene for about 20 years. He had already run for the presidency once. Reagan had experience.

And Reagan never would have chosen someone as lacking as Palin for his vice president.

Palin is a big joke.

To quote an article from The Politico:

Presidential scholars say she appears to be the least experienced, least credentialed person to join a major-party ticket in the modern era.

So unconventional was McCain's choice that it left students of the presidency literally "stunned," in the words of Joel Goldstein, a St. Louis University law professor and scholar of the vice presidency. "Being governor of a small state for less than two years is not consistent with the normal criteria for determining who's of presidential caliber," said Goldstein.

"I think she is the most inexperienced person on a major party ticket in modern history," said presidential historian Matthew Dallek. [...]

"It would be one thing if she had only been governor for a year and a half, but prior to that she had not had major experience in public life," said Dallek of Palin. "The fact that he would have to go to somebody who is clearly unqualified to be president makes Obama look like an elder statesman."

Palin has been governor for less than 2 years of a state with a population less than Brooklyn NY. The state has no major urban areas, and the job is made all the easier because the state receives so much oil revenue.

Before that she was the major of a town with less than 6000 people, and left that town in heavy debt.

So sure experience isn't everything...but one needs at least some minimum level, and Palin does not have that. She hasn't even give much thought to foreign policy issues. When she was asked earlier about Iraq, her answer was:
"I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq."

So her intellectual curiosity is right up there with Bush's and McCain's. She is clearly no prodigy, wise beyond her years. But of course she cannot be, for by agreeing to be on McCain's ticket, she backs the same failed policies of McCain and Bush.

But beyond her startling lack of qualifications is McCain's rank hypocrisy in picking her. After going around citing the importance of experience for the last several months, he abandons his principle on that.

He is also supremely arrogant, as he assumes he will not die in office if elected. He is also arrogant in that he assumes he would not need a partner in governing as the vice presidency has been used going back to Reagan.

One of McCain's top campaign advisors, Charlie Black admits:
"She’s going to learn national security at the foot of the master for the next four years, and most doctors think that he’ll be around at least that long." about arrogance. Again, this pick says far more about McCain than anyone else, and how disastrous a leader a he would be.

John McCain's new slogan should be "Putting Country Last."

Jason B. said...

Brian, to be blunt (am I ever not?), this batch of over-intellectualized hand-waving about "trade-offs" -- complete with graph -- feels like a rationalization, a misdirection, a dodging of the issue. The issue is not "experience"; the issue is John McCain's decisionmaking.

It's about how his choice of Palin means that McCain himself does not believe in any of the major criticisms he has made of Obama during this campaign. It shows how little he is really concerned about the "transcendental" threat of terrorism that he is always going on about. It shows how much in denial he is regarding his own age and health. It shows that he doesn't believe Obama's lack of "experience" is a serious problem. It shows that he cares more about winning the election than about...anything and everything left to him: honor, country, you name it. (Note that, in perfect Orwellian style, the podium from which Palin made her speech bore the slogan COUNTRY FIRST.)

Palin seems like a capable governor. Maybe she does share your values and so forth. Maybe after preparing for the job for a few years, she could even make a good President. But elect her now and she will be in complete reliance on unelected "experts" like Bill Kristol to tell her what to do on the world stage. She is not tested and she is not ready -- unless, of course, we don't have anything to fear from abroad. But she is the presumptive nominee of a party that has spent seven years emphasizing the threat from abroad at every turn. For this lack of seriousness, more than anything else, the Republican Party must be rejected in November. They simply must not be allowed to win while playing these sorts of games.

thinking said...

Well said Jason.

I would also add that shame on many in the so called "religious right"...they like the Republican and conservative movements, have become severely compromised and need to have their wings clipped.

As Andrew Sullivan writes:
"What it says about McCain is that he is more interested in politics than policy, more interested in campaigning than governing, tactical when he should be strategic, and reckless when he should be considered.

He is as big a gamble as president as Palin is as vice-president. This decision was about gut, about politics, about cynicism, and about vanity. It's Bushism metastasized."

I would also add that this reveals much to be ashamed of among many in the evangelical Christian community. For many have shown that they too do not care about competency, qualifications, etc.

I would also add that as a Christian I do not want a Christian govt any more than I want a Buddhist govt or Muslim govt, etc. I want a secular govt that serves all people, not just a certain type of Christian.

I do not even want a govt run entirely by Christians, much less a certain type of Christian, because it's foolish to believe that in all cases an evangelical Christian will be the best for any job.

I think many leaders in the evangelical community have become too much like the Pharisees in Jesus' time, who were more concerned with translating religious authority into political power and wealth.

That's why so many evangelicals loved the choice of Cheney, and why they love the choice of Palin.

thinking said...

I see that Cindy McCain on one of the Sunday morning shows actually tried to argue that Palin had foreign policy experience by citing the fact that Alaska is very close to Russia. This is getting to be self parody.

The McCain campaign is not a serious one, and deserves to be rejected at the ballot box by a huge margin.

Brian Hollar said...

Jason, thanks for the comment. You raise some interesting points.

First off, I do not think what I wrote is merely a bunch of "hand-waving". See my previous post on Palin to read reactions of people on both the left and the right, I am trying to come up with a framework of understanding the differing perspectives. Many people on the right are either excited by her pick or deeply concerned. Unsurprisingly, many on the left find her choice to be troubling. There is no doubt Palin is unconventional.

I agree that McCain's choice of Palin does bring up some questions about his decision-making. It does indeed contradict criticisms of Obama's experience. (However, Obama's campaign should be careful about criticizing Palin's lack of experience or else people may start asking serious questions about Obama's.)

If you think the Republicans are playing dangerous games by selecting her, then it makes sense for you to vote for the Democratic ticket in November. However, not everyone agrees with that perspective. Quite a few people are delighted at Palin's choice. I'm still trying to sort out what I think about her and McCain's decision-making in selecting her.

Thinking, I understand you support Obama and don't like McCain, but would like to ask you to please be more respectful to others who don't share your perspective. There's no need to call others arrogant, hypocrites, or Pharisees to make your point.

lewis said...

Personally, I would rather have someone with no Washington experience than a senator whose only experience is voting and talking. Those guys are the ones that gave us the huge federal debt and all the regulations. Is it experience that is important or is it qualifications? And I would think one qualification is that she understands that government should have a limited role consistent with the Constitution. In that respect, she is probably more qualified than Obama, Biden and McCain.