Our #2 vs. Their #1: Sarah Palin, Barack Obama and the Race For The Vice Presidency

I have been thinking for a while that I wanted to see Sarah Palin on the national ticket in 2012, but she wasn’t my first choice for VP – my long list of “don’ts” included a few strikes against her, and in the days before the rollout, I backed Eric Cantor and viewed Palin as too much of a rookie for the national ticket. Had Palin run in the GOP primaries, I would certainly have opposed her on grounds of being insufficiently experienced to head the national ticket, as I did with 1-term Governor Mitt Romney. So, what to make of her as McCain’s running mate?

I won’t say that I’m unconcerned by her inexperience on national security matters; we really do know precious little of her views on those issues. Her main national security responsibility is commanding the Alaska National Guard troops tasked with important functions in the missile defense system, and it’s a bit of a stretch to make that out as more than it is.

Palin will be inevitably compared to Barack Obama, given that so many of the criticisms leveled against Obama not only by Republicans but by fellow Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have focused on his inexperience. There are certainly some similarities between Palin and Obama (and more between Palin and Tim Kaine, one of the finalists for Obama’s running mate). But there are two very important distinctions between Palin and Obama.Their #1 = Our #2

The first one is obvious: Obama is running for President, not Vice President. Given the vast gulf between McCain’s and Obama’s resumes, it’s clear that the issue of experience, accomplishment and qualification requires Obama to change the subject at every possible opportunity. And now he is changing it to compare himself to Sarah Palin.

Obama has now gotten himself sucked in to comparing the Democrats’ #1 to the Republicans’ #2:

“My understanding is that Gov. Palin’s town, Wassilla, has I think 50 employees. We’ve got 2500 in this campaign. I think their budget is maybe 12 million dollars a year – we have a budget of about three times that just for the month,” Obama responded.

In so doing, he is comparing apples to oranges comparing his campaign in 2008 to Palin’s record as Mayor of Wasilla in 1996-2002 back when Obama was just a State Senator, while completely ignoring her job as Governor. He is also, amusingly, claiming that he is qualified to be president based on…running for president. But even aside from that, the #1 vs #2 dynamic is precisely where McCain wants Obama:

“When they’re comparing our vice presidential candidate’s experience to their presidential candidate’s experience and John McCain is just flying above it all,” says one senior McCain adviser, “that’s a good place for us to be.”

The old saying we have heard in many a campaign is that the presidency is no place for on the job training; the vice presidency, by contrast, consists of little else. None of that is a reason to gamble on a complete cipher for the job. But that brings us to the second point: Palin’s qualifications are clearly superior to Obama’s because she is an executive.

“I’m In Charge Here”

The presidency is fundamentally an executive job – this is a major part of why I originally backed Rudy, and only by invoking both a very long (25 year) career in Congress and an equally long (27 year) career in the Navy was McCain able to overcome the usual presumption that the GOP would pick an executive like Romney, Rudy or Huckabee. Obama, by contrast, was blessed to run almost entirely against a field of other Senators – only Bill Richardson among the Democratic field had ever been a chief executive.

As I have explained before at length, there are five types of experience that are particularly useful in preparing for the presidency: executive experience, national security experience, political (especially political leadership) experience, military service, and private sector business experience. No one of these is essential, but national security and executive experience are the two most important, and if you can’t have anyone on the ticket who has done both, the next best thing is a ticket that combines an executive with a veteran national security hand – exactly what the GOP is running.

While Palin’s resume in major public office is, like Obama’s, relatively short, and her national security experience negligible at best, her experience is as a chief executive, the person to whom an entire state government reports, the person who gets the call when things go wrong, the person on whose desk the buck stops. The buck has never stopped with Barack Obama, or with Joe Biden for that matter. Obama has various bills he tries to take credit for (sometimes accurately), but he does not have the kind of record to run on that every governor has. We have had presidents before who were relatively short-tenured governors. Woodrow Wilson, for example, was elected with effectively the same resume as Palin – small-scale executive experience (his tenure as president of turn-of-the-century Princeton University is comparable to being mayor of a town of a few thousand people) followed by two years as a reformist, anti-machine governor. Wilson’s presidency may not be the best role model (I have noted before that the public had no way of knowing what kind of Commander-in-Chief Wilson would be) but he did turn out to be a highly effective leader both in domestic legislative battles and in commanding American troops; Wilson’s failings were more about his impractical ideas.

Obama’s lack of any of the kinds of relevant experience is really staggering, and not at all like Palin. Nobody with a resume like Obama’s has ever been elected president (Abe Lincoln, who had a relatively short resume as a legislator and to whom Al Gore audaciously compared Obama, had a good deal more private sector responsibility than Obama and had served in the military as a captain in the Black Hawk War. And Obama’s no Abe Lincoln).

That’s the difference between Palin as Governor and Obama as Senator. And the pattern repeats in their prior job experience. I regard Palin’s two three-year terms as Mayor of Wasilla, like Obama’s four two-year terms as State Senator from Hyde Park, as useful life experience (it helps to see how government interacts with the people at ground level) but not really a substitute for the necessary step of serving in major public office like being a Member of Congress or elected statewide as a Governor or Senator. But even then, Obama wasn’t the guy responsible for Hyde Park (he has since tried to make a point of his not having “clout” in the State Senate); he was never in a leadership position in his party and until his last term in the State Senate he was (just as in the first two years in the US Senate before he stopped showing up so he could run for President) a member of the minority party. If anything, Obama’s worked hard at avoiding being the guy who could be held responsible for anything that’s happened around him his entire career (his presidential campaign has involved a seemingly endless series events, up to and including this weekend’s barrage of attacks on Palin, in which Obama claims to have no responsibility for what his own subordinates do). Wasilla may be a small suburban town, but for two terms Sarah Palin was in charge of it. You would look long and hard for anything Barack Obama has been in charge of.