Saturday, August 30, 2008

Juniority: The political version

Barack Obama
Sarah Palin
The 2008 presidential election so far, like the institution of serial marriage, represents the triumph of hope over experience. With the designation of Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for Vice President, each of the major tickets will include one member under the age of 50. And neither of them, let the record show, is a white man.

Between them, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin have held statewide office for not quite six years. And between them, Obama and Palin have now inspired critics across the political spectrum, including more than one presidential candidate, to rail against youth, to champion experience, and to quiver at the prospect of a fit, attractive, 40-something Commander-in-Chief.

A pox on those naysayers. On this forum I've repeatedly touted the virtues of juniority, especially in academic administration. The political sphere is no different. If there is one strain permeating this year's presidential derby, it is a deeply held yearning, left and right alike, for something besides politics as usual. Everyone wants change. The only question — and it is a good one — is what kind.

Abraham Lincoln had little experience before he became President. Relative to Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and John Kennedy had somewhat more experience, but these respected Presidents were 40-somethings in their day. Herbert Hoover brought so much experience to the White House that the Presidency was almost a demotion. It proved not to matter so much.

It isn't the length of the résumé that matters as much as the candidate's capacity to lead. Voters can and should judge Obama and Palin according to their positions on the issues. Those positions, and these candidates' ability to transform ideas into action, should count for far more than mere age.

5 Comments:

Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

Jim: I am a big fan if juniority but within that general category perhaps there is an important distinction. Some juniors are chosen as the means to the ends of seniors. They are simply their surrogates or, even worse, appointed because of what they symbolize, not who they are. This occurs with respect to VP candidates as well as associate deans. The issue, as you point out, is the character of the person and his or her own ideas not their willingness to do what they are told.

8/30/2008 10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jim:
Sarah Palin is going to be exposed as being out of her league very soon. Obama has run a national campaign with rigor and skill. Junior/outsider status is great, but we want people who can run the country. Obama has proven that he can over a very long nominating process. Palin is a complete unknown. If she were the candidate for President it would be a joke, and a bad joke at that, so why does she get a pass as the VPP??

8/31/2008 1:13 AM  
Blogger BH said...

"Anonymous" said:

"[W]e want people who can run the country. Obama has proven that he can over a very long nominating process."

Obama proved he can run the country by running an effective party nomination campaign? That sounds like you're trying to make an objective point about the ability of a candidate to succed in a primary campaign and said candidate's ability to be President; were it not Obama and the democratic party that you were using as an example, I don't think you would try to make the same point. Goldwater ran a great campaign to win the 64 Republican nomination: do you also think that qualified him to "run the country" back then?

9/01/2008 2:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes.

I was writing in the spirit of Jim's post, which is that we should judge candidates on the merits regardless of their juniority. I think Obama should be judged on the merits, as he passes the minimum standard of "being able to run the country." That doesn't mean his election would be good for the country.

I think Barry Goldwater proved he was capable of running the country. Into the ground, maybe, but he should have been judged on the merits.

My guess is that Sarah Palin will soon be revealed as someone who, regardless of the merits or demerits of her beliefs, should not be considered seriously for the VP slot because of juniority/lack of experience/etc.

My point is that there needs to be some minimal capability shown before we begin thinking about the candidate's position on the issues. Obama has passed that test, and indeed I would argue that any major party nominee has passed the test in the contemporary political scene. Some would be horrendous presidents or vice-presidents, in my opinion, but that is because of their policies, not their juniority.

9/01/2008 11:26 PM  
Blogger Ani Onomous said...

Forgive me if I ramble here. I don't think that I understand the case for juniority very well in the law school setting, though frankly, I think it has something to do with assuming that older people can't have fresh ideas or lead with vigor. If on the other hand juniority simply means that youth, and a lack of experience, shouldn't necessarily be disqualifying, it's hard to see the objection to it -- it simply amounts to saying that we shouldn't be unduly prejudiced.

As to the political application, you say: "It isn't the length of the résumé that matters as much as the candidate's capacity to lead. Voters can and should judge Obama and Palin according to their positions on the issues. Those positions, and these candidates' ability to transform ideas into action, should count for far more than mere age."

Two quick reactions. First, I think the resume does relate to the capacity to lead; not only will some be less willing to follow someone they regard as inexperienced, but she or he will have less experience to draw upon in putting their dreams into action. (See, for example, how well Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton coped with the Hill when they first came to DC.) And someone inexperienced is more likely to depend on someone else not at the top of the ticket. (See GWB's reliance on Cheney and Rove.) So it does, in short, relate keenly to the person's ability to put ideas into action, or at least *their* ideas into action.

Second, I should think you'd be keenly interested in a candidate's track record as the best predictor of her or his qualities as a leader. Granted, a four-year term isn't tenure, but it seems to matter a lot more, and a Moneyball approach should be skeptical of emphasizing the cut of someone's jib.

P.S. As to the examples you give, there's a serious risk of cherry-picking. Certainly some inexperienced Presidents have turned out to be great -- e.g., Lincoln -- though I have to say that the electorate rolled the dice on him in a way that I'd be pretty uncomfortable replicating.

9/02/2008 6:23 PM  

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