Why experience matters in a vice presidential nominee

First the facts. From 1952 to 2008, there have been ten non-incumbent Republican candidates for vice president, including:

  • Three sitting U.S. senators: Nixon, Dole, Quayle;
  • One former U.S. senator and current ambassador: Lodge;
  • One sitting congressman: Miller;
  • Three former congressmen: former housing secretary Kemp, former CIA director and GOP chairman Bush the elder, former presidential chief of staff and defense secretary Cheney;
  • Two sitting governors: Agnew, Palin.

Thus eight of the ten Republican vice presidential picks had served in the Congress. Eight of the ten had had years of experience taking stands on national and international issues. Several had had both executive and legislative positions in the national government.

Agnew and Palin are the only exceptions. Agnew had served for four years as Baltimore County executive, and at the time he was nominated for vice president had been governor of Maryland for a year and a half. A stint in local government, and a year and a half as governor—just like Sarah Palin. When Spiro Agnew is your only predecessor whose career path resembles your own, that’s not good.

Now let’s look at the Democratic side. There, the story is much simpler. From 1952 to 2008, there have been 14 non-incumbent Democratic candidates for vice president (counting two in 1972), including:

  • Twelve sitting U.S. senators: Sparkman, Kefauver, Johnson, Humphrey, Muskie, Eagleton (until he left the ticket), Mondale, Bentsen, Gore, Lieberman, Edwards, and Biden;
  • One sitting member of the House of Representatives: Ferraro;
  • One former ambassador and former head of the Peace Corps: Shriver.

Thus twelve of the 14 were sitting U.S. senators, 13 of the 14 were sitting members of Congress, and 14 out of 14 had had significant experience in federal government.

Moreover, if we go back to 1944, 14 out of the 16 non-incumbent Democratic VP nominees since 1944 have been sitting U.S. senators, the additional names being Truman and Barkley.

You may ask, why does this matter? After all, several U.S. presidents in recent decades had been governors with no national experience (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Bush the younger), while only one president since World War II was a U.S. senator—Kennedy. Governors don’t deal with national issues for the most part, they deal with state issues. Why, then, must vice presidential nominees have substantial national experience, given that we don’t expect the same of presidential nominees?

The answer is that there is a crucial practical difference between the situations of presidential and vice presidential nominees. A presidential nominee has prepared for a presidential campaign, has studied the relevant issues enough to articulate and take positions on them, has constructed his own platform, and has spent at least a year running for president, during which time he is presenting himself to the country as a prospective president. A governor with significant experience in state government, but with no national experience, supplies the lack in the very act of preparing for his candidacy and being a candidate.

With the vice presidential nominee there is generally no such preparation. In modern times, the VP nominee is simply chosen by the presumptive presidential nominee, often just a few weeks or even just a few days before the nominating convention. He has not spent months developing his candidacy and offering himself as a national leader. Therefore it seems obligatory that vice presidential nominees be individuals who already have had substantial background and experience in national issues. Who better fits the bill than a U.S. senator (or, second best, a congressman), whose job consists in studying, taking stands on, and debating national and foreign policy questions?

From this point of view, Sarah Palin is in a class by herself in her total lack of relevant national experience prior to her nomination for vice president. Only Spiro Agnew (who was chosen for cynical reasons by Nixon because of Agnew’s tough-guy image) comes close, and his experience was more significant, as he had been the executive of a large metropolitan area and governor of a state with a far larger and more diverse population than Alaska.

However, as suggested above, what matters most when we talk about experience is not the mere number of years a person has served in a variety of government positions added up on a resume. Much of the debate about Palin has been on that level, and it has not interested me. Rather, number of years in office is an index of the thing that really does matter: deep familiarity with, a thought-out point of view on, and the ability to explain and discuss national questions. Palin, notwithstanding her impressive gutsiness and steadiness of nerve, is without those qualifications, as was evident in her interview with Charles Gibson.

And I haven’t even mentioned the higher qualifications of a prospective president; good judgment, a grasp of the world, and penetrating insight into the essence of things, such was as displayed, most notably, by Ronald Reagan, who, without any experience in national office, had reflected deeply on Communism and understood the essential truth about Communism and its vulnerabilities, a truth that Nixon and Kissinger, both with higher IQs than Reagan and life-times of professiooal experience in foreign policy, did not understand. Here I’m not speaking of those higher abilities or saying Palin must have them. I’m just speaking in minimal terms about the mechanics of being able to talk national policy.

As Jonathan Alter of Newsweek put it right after Palin was named:

But what does she know about Iranian nukes, health care or the future of entitlement programs? And that’s just a few of the 20 or so national issues on which she will be expected to show basic competence. The McCain camp will have to either let her wing it based on a few briefing memos (highly risky) or prevent her from taking questions from reporters (a confession that she’s unprepared). Either way, she’s going to belly-flop at a time when McCain can least afford it.

Far from belly flopping, Palin, given her lack of background, did exceptionally well in her interview with Charles Gibson. As I’ve said from the start, I think she is a talented person with unusual inner resources, and those qualities got her through the interview. But the fact remains that she was chosen because McCain liked her maverick profile, and because she is an exciting personality who could win votes. He liked her so much that he disregarded her manifest lack of sufficient experience for the job.

- end of initial entry -

September 17

E. writes:

Again brilliant—but one ingredient is missing. I for one do not want anyone with Washington experience to lead this country. Experience represents experience in failure.

I do not want brilliant Ivy League college graduates. I do not want a country run by lawyers. (I hire and fire lawyers by the dozen.) I do want someone with lots of commonsense. Which gets lost in academia.

I do want someone who is shocked by corruption by not being exposed to it through experience.

All this talk of experience is nonsense not commonsense. By the way most world leaders and some of the best ones never saw the inside of a twelfth grade classroom. Shockingly this applies even to Israel with the exception of Menachem Begin who was full of common sense and who said “If the American government likes me than I am not the prime minister of Israel” And of course they are now blessed with a lawyer named Olmert for a P M. who they don’t seem able to get rid of. So even the country whose population has the highest percent of college degrees, has done remarkably well with down to earth no nonsense leaders. No degrees. No experience needed or even wanted.

No apologies no guilty conscience. I look down at the whole bunch—it is the realm of leftist elitist snobs who can talk your ears off about nothing but when the boat sinks they are gone because they learned how to swim from a book.

Donna E. writes:

Who better to prepare for the presidency than someone who is uniquely qualified as a Christian wife and mother and an executive in the public realm. Who but a man who doesn’t understand the qualities given to a Christian woman would not see the deep commitment to country that qualifies this “gutsy” woman to be the very thing this country needs at this critical time in our history.

What with CEOs greedily taking from their companies and reeking havoc with our nation’s economy we need someone who has not been tainted with the DC crowd thinking to clean up the mess that people like Pelosi and Reed have made.

Louisiana politics run by “men” spent the money for the levees on “other needs” over the years and left their people to drown.

Texas allowed the building of fragile structures when the history of the area would lead them to “know” that it would only be a matter of time before the vulnerability of the area come back to bite them.

Hindsight is 20/20, but that is what these people are paid to accomplish. Some common sense goes a long way.

The only thing the Senate wants to do is line their own pockets with taxpayer cash in payment of guaranteed retirements and the House wants to take taxpayer money to fund their travel and vacations without doing the work they were sent there to do. Now they want to give our SS money to illegal aliens and visas that are transferable to illegals so that they can be sure that 500,000 jobs will be sure to be given to non citizens.

Don’t be so patronizing to the American people as to keep the status quo and bury us as a nation in the pathetic “work” that the Congress has been doing for the last 50 years.

C., a liberal, writes:

Thanks. Very insightful. I can’t agree with all, but it’s a helpful analysis.

I only saw part of the Gibson interview. I suspect she had never heard of Lincoln hoping to have been on God’s side prior to being prepped for the interview. But even if she had, the short clip of her holy-war reference that I saw made it look highly unlikely that she had any doubt that Bush’s and McC’s war (and hers) were mandated by a God who communicates his wishes directly to them.

I found it simply odd, and in cases disingenuous if not dishonest, that supporters could have said that the interview was a success. I admit I was expecting worse, but what we got was still pretty bad. Her repetitions and evasions seemed to me to show that she is not grounded in this stuff at all, and she is not a quick study. She’s a moderately-speeded study of a relatively small number of things. The people who like her “because she’s regular folk, like me” may be excused for not knowing that the “Bush Doctrine” is a nickname for the proposition that the U.S. has a unilateral right to invade sovereign nations if it feels threatened. I’m sure Palin would have had a hunch that Bush feels that way, even if she didn’t know he had articulated it, or that it had a name. And I’m sure she agrees with him. Regardless of all of that, it’s simply not acceptable that someone aspiring to the VP-ency could not speak knowledgeably about it.

But I don’t think that was the worst of it. She thinks that having a fixed gaze qualifies her for the job, and insulates her from having any doubts about whether she is up to it. (I’m using shorthand. I know she was talking about the non-use of ocular muscles as a metaphor. I’m riffing on how embarrassing her overuse of “blink” was.) I hope that was simply a bald-faced lie, because the alternative is that a person, given that offer, is so stupid and hubristic as to have no doubt of her abilities, insights, judgments and skills, as needed to be ready to perform the most demanding job in the world, a job in which failure is catastrophic for millions or billions of people. We’ve just spent 7 1/2 years with hubris (I don’t say he’s stupid, but he did do monumentally stupid things), but at least he had some kind of relevant background, and—as a sage put it—he spent years readying himself in quiet and active campaigns for the job.

Irwin Graulich writes:

I think you are wrong about the “government/Federal experience” model. Frankly I think you or I would make better vice presidents than anyone in congress today … and I am not kidding at all. Life experience, values, common sense, a practical religious foundation and a good understanding of national and world issues is what is really needed.

Frankly, if I could, I would pass a law that a lawyer cannot run for any political office. I want business people, dentists, storekeepers, car mechanics and cops running the country—not sicko lawyers like Barney Frank or Dennis Kucinich!

Spencer Warren writes:

From what we surmise so far about Palin’s character and guts, and her moral grounding and patriotism, I think she would make a better president than Ferraro, Agnew, Biden and maybe even Nixon and LBJ. I don’t think one has to know the issues Alter mentions; anyway, in a week of briefing by experts she would know more than he and every other journalist and most congressmen. How much did Reagan or Carter for that matter know in detail about the economic issues in 1980 or the dynamics of the Iranian Revolution? Reagan was no Sovietologist, but he had the big picture right, as Palin may as well. [LA replies: This is a guess with no basis in fact. Palin has said nothing to indicate that she has a big picture.]

I also think Sarah is better suited by her inner qualities and her moral grounding and patriotism to be president than just about every Democratic presidential and vice-presidential nominee since McGovern-Shriver.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 16, 2008 08:39 PM | Send

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