Monday, September 1, 2008

Experience: Obama v. Palin

One of the rather more comical arguments floating around in defense of Sarah Palin for VP is that she has more "executive experience" than Barack Obama. The first time I heard this, I found it laughable. How could anyone say this with a straight face? While Obama was serving in the Illinois state legislature, Palin was Mayor of Wasila, Alaska, population 8,000 or so. I've lived in neighborhoods with more people (specifically, the East Village in NY). The man is a Senator. She's been governor of a state with a miniscule population for a grand total of a year and a half.

Nonetheless, the idea seems to be taking hold with some people. A couple of the bloggers at Obsidian take apart this nonsense. Hilzoy argues that Obama has done such a good running his campaign that we no longer have to wonder about how good of a manager he is - the answer is, he's a superb manager. Publius parses the difference between "executive" and "legislative" experience, and why Obama's experience is better.

I want to expand on these arguments. Allow me to propose a hypothetical. Suppose you are being sued, and you need a lawyer. You have two choices: one guy who has been a lawyer for 30 years, and a woman who has been a lawyer for 10 years. Going strictly on the "more experience is better" line, you would choose the old-timer.

Now suppose I told you that the guy with 30 years under his belt went to a small, obsucre law school, and has been a sole practitioner in a small town for his entire career. He's handled mostly divorces, contracts, wills, traffic tickets, the occasional DUI. The woman with only 10 years of experience, on the other hand, went to a top law school, worked as a federal prosecutor for 5 years, and then worked for one of the top law firms in the country as a litigator for 5 years. She's busted Mafia guys and defended large corporations. The older man likes to take off Friday afternoons for golf. The young woman routinely works 80 hour weeks, and is never without her BlackBerry. Now which one would you want as your lawyer?

When we talk about "experience," a big part of what we are talking about is who the person has dealt with. The small town lawyer deals with average people with fairly simple problems. The aggressive woman in the big city deals with other aggressive people, like the other lawyers she is arguing against, the judges, whoever she is prosecuting, whoever is suing her clients. She's dealing with large problems: rape, murder, theft, bribery, discrimination. Lives, reputations, and millions of dollars may be at stake for her.

Palin's formative political experience was on the city council and as mayor of Wasila, Alaska. Obama's formative political experience was as a state senator in Illinois. Palin would have been responsible for about 8,000 people; Obama was responsible for at least 200,000. Palin would have been dealing with other members of the city council, on issues like how to fill potholes and who to hire as police chief. Obama would have been dealing with multi-billion dollar budgets, and laws that affect 12 million people. He would have been dealing with the governor of one of the largest states in the country. He represented part of Chicago, a city famous for nasty and brutal politics.

In their current jobs, Palin is governor of a state with about 600,000 people. Obama represents all of those 12 million, or 20 times as many people. Palin has to deal with the Alaska state legislature. Obama has to deal with the President, 99 other senators, 435 members of the House, various parts of the executive branch, including the military, and powerful representatives of other countries. Obama votes on bills that affect all 300 million Americans; Palin signs or vetoes legislation that affects 1/500th of those 300 million.

And, of course, Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. I like to think that thinking and arguing about the Constitution is good preparation for being president. That probably make me an elitist.

Obama has dealt with larger issues, on a grander scale, with and against more demanding people, than Palin. Palin has won one statewide campaign, against a highly unpopular opponent. Obama has already won a successful primary campaign against a very tough opponent with substantial advantages, Hillary Clinton.

This idea that Palin has more experience than Obama is complete and utter nonsense.

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