Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Cult of the Amateur President

Jimmy Carter undoubtedly has many admirable qualities. But when people compare Obama to him, they seldom mean it as a compliment to either man. That’s why only conservative commentators tend to do it out loud. When they do it lately, however, they’re voicing thoughts that must have crossed many liberal minds.

This persuasive observation from Jay Cost is a case in point (my emphasis):
“[S]ince George McGovern ruined the presidential nominating system in 1971, there has been a new potential item for the presidential CV: navigating the byzantine process of primaries and caucuses better than any competitor.

“Not all eventual nominees have managed to do this (e.g. Gerald Ford was nearly outflanked in 1976, so was Ronald Reagan in 1980), and with only two presidents has this been a prime 'qualification' for winning the nomination. The first was Jimmy Carter, whose insurgent campaign in 1976 exhibited an advanced understanding of the new, open process that now governs the selection of party candidates. The second was Barack Obama, whose campaign team grasped the seemingly inscrutable complexities of the new system better than anybody ever has. Breaking down the popular vote in the 2008 Democratic battle, it was a basically a tie; Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the nomination because he out-organized her, especially in caucus states like Colorado, Idaho, and Minnesota. . . .

“[N]either [Carter or Obama] really had much of anything to do with politics before the presidency. In fact, both candidates touted their inexperience as a qualification. In Obama’s case, he – unlike the rest of the serious Democratic challengers in 2008 – had nothing to do with the foreign policy of the Bush administration, and in the general election he ran as a 'fresh face' against John McCain.

“Unfortunately, gaming the nomination process plus having no significant experience in government turns out to be a grossly insufficient combination for presidential leadership. Day by day, week by week, we are becoming more aware that, when it comes to the political dance in Washington, Obama is foxtrotting with two left feet.”
Let's concede that Obama has betrayed his political and administrative inexperience on several occasions in the first years of his presidency.  I'm more interested in the fact that Cost is elaborating on a point that was perfectly obvious to Republicans from the moment Obama won the Democratic presidential nomination. Although they weren’t blind to his personal virtues, it would never have occurred to them that a man with the thinnest political resume of a major party candidate since (the similarly silver-tongued) William Jennings Bryan had any business being a major party nominee for the presidency.

Truth be told, that surely would have been obvious to Democrats too had Obama been a Republican. But, having played the political cards they were dealt by choosing Obama over only slightly more experienced candidates like Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, liberal Democrats had soon invested far too much psychological capital in Obama’s candidacy to apply the same standard to him that they would have applied to any conservative Republican.

That was clear as soon as Sarah Palin entered the 2008 campaign just before Labor Day. Any half-term governor of a small-population and spectacularly atypical state--particularly one whose most conspicuous virtues play better on Fox News than they would in the White House--is likely to be unprepared to lead the nation from the Oval Office. Yet the same liberals who were throwing fits about Palin’s unpreparedness for the vice presidency were blithely unconcerned by the prospect of a half-term Senate backbencher running for the presidency.

Let’s say for the purposes of argument that, as of Election Day, 2008, there was a 20 percent chance that, had he been elected, McCain wouldn’t have served out his first term. And ignore any experience that Palin would have accrued in the interim between McCain’s inauguration and his incapacitation. Can someone explain to me how, all other things besides experience being equal, the one-in-five chance of Palin sitting in the Oval Office could be more daunting to a reasonable person than the 100 percent chance of Obama’s sitting there?

Of course, neither Democrats nor Republicans ever thought that other things were equal. From the first time they laid eyes on her, Democrats tended to think that Palin’s an airhead because of her unimpressive academic record and her militant plain-spokenness.  They still tend to think that Obama’s academic credentials and fluency show that he’s a man of piercing intelligence and discerning judgment. Although as a class they were never as besotted by Palin as liberals were by Obama, conservatives appreciated her unapologetic devotion to heartland values and her homespun common sense, especially when they compared it to Obama’s intellectual and moral pretentiousness.  Neither side was very impressed by the presidential credentials that were impressing the other side.

In the heat of an election, both liberals and conservatives persuaded themselves that their candidate’s having virtues that they congratulated themselves for having compensated for the gaping holes in their presidential resumes. That’s an improbable thought when you consider how any successful presidency turns on the president’s having a rare combination of administrative competence and political skill.  There's still no better way for a candidate to demonstrate that he or she possesses those virtues than by having a long and successful career as a professional politician, preferably with some time in an important executive office.  Watching Obama undergo on-the-job training is the price liberal Democrats are paying for forgetting that.


Popinjay said...

Ron - you say in your profile that you're now working on a book about the sad state of ethical common sense in liberal circles. You ought to rush it to press. Liberals need help.

Anonymous said...

No mention of the Katie Couric interview? Any talk of her preparedness has to consider that trainwreak of an interview.