Are You Experienced?

Comparing Barack Obama and Sarah Palin's readiness to govern


Praising John McCain's running mate the other day, President Bush made one of those comments that reveals more than intended. "Well, she's had executive experience," he said, "and that's what it takes to be a capable person here in Washington, D.C., in the executive branch."

He didn't notice the implication that McCain, a three-term senator, would be sorely deficient as president. Nor did it occur to the former chief executive of Texas that his administration has utterly failed to prove the wisdom of putting a governor in the White House.

Bush was echoing a favorite new theme of conservatives: that a politician of meager experience is ready to lead the Free World. Until recently, McCain and Co. were appalled that the Democratic Party would entrust the presidency to a young person with a thin resume. But since Sarah Palin joined the ticket, they have revised their view.

First, they dismiss the importance of experience. William Kristol wrote in The New York Times that McCain and Barack Obama "undoubtedly thought highly enough of their running mates to have confidence in their ability to take over their administration in case of incapacity or death. I think most voters will accept that basic judgment." If McCain says she can do it, who are we to doubt?

Second, they insist she has more and better experience than Obama, anyway. At the Republican convention, Rudy Giuliani lamented that Obama has "never run a city, never run a state, never run a business"—unlike Palin, who was a mayor before becoming governor of Alaska two years ago. Giuliani didn't mention what he said when he was running against McCain: "He has never run a city, never run a state, never run a government."

But the charge that Obama lacks the necessary background has some merit. Eight years in the Illinois General Assembly and four years in the U.S. Senate is pretty modest training for the most powerful job on earth.

Still, he has spent more time in elected posts than Hillary Clinton, and no one doubted her credentials. When he ran in 2000, Bush himself had spent only half as much time in elective office as Obama has.

The Democratic nominee's other jobs, such as teaching constitutional law, look like better training than, say, helping to run a baseball team. As for McCain's 26 years on Capitol Hill, wasn't it Republicans who used to say there was such a thing as being in Washington too long?

Preparation for the presidency requires more than occupying an executive position or spending decades on Capitol Hill. What makes Obama more ready than Palin? The obvious thing is what he's been doing for the last 18 months.

He had to develop and demonstrate a sure grasp of all the issues that present themselves in the Oval Office. He's been grilled about his voting record, his pastor, and his convicted former fundraiser. He's campaigned in 48 states and defeated a formidable opponent.

By now, he's made himself plausible—not necessarily desirable, but plausible—as president in a way that Washington veterans like Fred Thompson and Chris Dodd simply couldn't do.

We also know something substantive about Obama's judgment from his early opposition to the Iraq war. Contrary to Palin's claims, he has used his time in the legislature and the Senate to sponsor and pass some useful legislation, such as a tighter congressional ethics bill.

She, on the other hand, has never had to address issues beyond the borders of Alaska. Even on her signature issue, the bridge to nowhere, Palin changed her position from "for" to "against" only when it became politically advantageous.

Until being chosen, she had apparently never set out her views on the Iraq war, and she never spelled out her policies on the most pressing national problems. We don't know if she's ever thought about them. It's anyone's guess if Palin has any guiding philosophy.

Nor is McCain eager to let her tell us. Dan Quayle, widely ridiculed as an airhead when he joined George Bush's 1988 ticket, was answering questions from the news media the next day. But for two weeks after she was picked, the supposedly fearless Palin dodged interviews. At this point, voters don't know enough to gauge whether she has the brains or the temperament for the presidency.

Of course, McCain didn't either, and it didn't stop him.