The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The 8000 lb Elephant

In a thoughtful piece in the NYT, David Brooks discusses “Why Experience Matters.” In the article Brooks contends that Sarah Palin’s populist experience is real, but that it doesn’t translate well for the role of Vice President.

Discussing those who defend her, Brooks writes:
There was a time when conservatives did not argue about this. Conservatism was once a frankly elitist movement. Conservatives stood against radical egalitarianism and the destruction of rigorous standards. They stood up for classical education, hard-earned knowledge, experience and prudence. Wisdom was acquired through immersion in the best that has been thought and said.

But, especially in America, there has always been a separate, populist, strain. For those in this school, book knowledge is suspect but practical knowledge is respected. The city is corrupting and the universities are kindergartens for overeducated fools.

The elitists favor sophistication, but the common-sense folk favor simplicity. The elitists favor deliberation, but the populists favor instinct.

This populist tendency produced the term-limits movement based on the belief that time in government destroys character but contact with grass-roots America gives one grounding in real life. And now it has produced Sarah Palin.

Palin is the ultimate small-town renegade rising from the frontier to do battle with the corrupt establishment. Her followers take pride in the way she has aroused fear, hatred and panic in the minds of the liberal elite. The feminists declare that she’s not a real woman because she doesn’t hew to their rigid categories. People who’ve never been in a Wal-Mart think she is parochial because she has never summered in Tuscany.

Look at the condescension and snobbery oozing from elite quarters, her backers say. Look at the endless string of vicious, one-sided attacks in the news media. This is what elites produce. This is why regular people need to take control.

But then Brooks argues that a reformers “experience” must also be coupled with the prudence to effectively govern. He writes:
What is prudence? It is the ability to grasp the unique pattern of a specific situation. It is the ability to absorb the vast flow of information and still discern the essential current of events — the things that go together and the things that will never go together. It is the ability to engage in complex deliberations and feel which arguments have the most weight.

How is prudence acquired? Through experience. The prudent leader possesses a repertoire of events, through personal involvement or the study of history, and can apply those models to current circumstances to judge what is important and what is not, who can be persuaded and who can’t, what has worked and what hasn’t.

Experienced leaders can certainly blunder if their minds have rigidified (see: Rumsfeld, Donald), but the records of leaders without long experience and prudence is not good. As George Will pointed out, the founders used the word “experience” 91 times in the Federalist Papers. Democracy is not average people selecting average leaders. It is average people with the wisdom to select the best prepared.

Is Palin the “best prepared?” Any honest observer would have to say that she is not. But there's a far bigger issue that Brooks fails to mention.

An invisible 8,000 lb. elephant sits precariously at the corner of every printed or electronic page that’s been written about Sarah Palin’s lack of experience. Every reader, every editor, and every columnist knows the elephant is there, but few who question Palin’s experience want to describe it. The elephant, of course, is Barack Obama’s profound lack of experience—not just experience required to be Vice President but experience that is required from day one as President of the United States.

And for those who think Obama has the requisite experience, I have only a single question. What exactly is this experience? Please enunciate it explicitly.

It can’t be “executive experience” because Obama has never been a mayor or a governor or a corporate manager, or a military leader. It can’t be “legislative experience,” because the Senator has never authored any legislation of consequence at either the state or federal level. It can’t be economic experience because the democratic nominee has never held a position (such a corporate manager, government official, or Chairman of a Senate committee) where he had responsibility for economic decision-making. It can’t be foreign policy experience because his background in this area is remarkably weak. It can’t be generic leadership experience because until his campaign, Obama has led exactly nothing except one failed educational $50 million effort in Chicago.

But it seems that only Palin’s lack of experience matters. And the elephant sits at the corner of every page and laughs.