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Veepstakes: What have we learned?

Barring unforeseen developments (mustn't forget McGovern-Eagleton), the veepstakes are now over for four years. Seems like every round, a goodly chunk of the punditocracy starts the exercise by looking at key (significant electoral votes) states that a particular potential nominee could "put in play" as the semi-official phrase goes.

History tells us this is rubbish. No case since 1960 in which the running-mate (LBJ) helped the ticket carry (steal?) an electorally significant state. Serious scholars of the question have concluded that this idea is vastly overrated, not only because it doesn't work, but because the presidential candidates no longer attach much weight to the idea. But could you have a better demonstration of this point than this year's veepstates?

Both major party presidential nominees chose running-mates from states (Joe Biden is from Delaware, Sarah Palin is from Alaska) that have three (the absolute minimum possible allotment) electoral votes. And both are states that their party could have been expected to carry anyway (Delaware has gone Dem the last four elections, Alaska Repub the last 10 and neither has been rated a serious battleground state in any recent cycle.)

Any chance we can retain this insight in four years when we engage in our next round of veepstakes speculation?

Experience of experience
McCain's selection of Gov. Palin has reinvigorated and created cross-currents in the arguments over the importance of experience in high-ranking government positions in preparing someone to be president or, in Palin's case, the proverbial heartbeat away.

In defense of Palin, Republicans have made the silly claim that she is more qualified to be president than Obama. If it's about years of service in high government jobs, Obama's resumé (five-plus years in the Senate) is thinner than McCain's (four in the U.S. House, 21-plus in the Senate), which is thinner than Joe Biden's (35-plus in the Senate) and Palin's is thinner than any of them (less than two years as a governor, mayor of a tiny city before that).

On Sunday, Rudy Giuliani said Palin had more relevant experience than Obama because as governor you actually do things, and senators only talk. (Shh. don't tell him that McCain has had one of those all-talk jobs for the last 25 years.)

It's harder now for the Repubs to make an issue of Obama's relative inexperience and hard for the Dems to make an issue of Palin's.

For me, the whole topic is usually discussed in the absence of the main point that any honest analyst would draw from the historical pattern of more- vs. less-experienced presidents:

A lot of experience in high-ranking government jobs is neither necessary nor sufficient for presidential excellence. In fact, but if you grouped the presidents first by experience, then by how their presidencies are viewed by historians, it would be easy to argue that inexperience is a great qualification.

Abraham Lincoln, virtually the consensus choice as greatest president ever, is the only man who ever became president without first serving in the Senate, the cabinet, the vice presidency, a governor's office or as a general in the military. (Lincoln had one term in the U.S. House, four in the Illinois Legislature, and was postmaster of the village of New Salem from 1833-36. Oh, yes, Lincoln also served — for about three months, but didn't see action — and was elected captain of his company during the Black Hawk War of 1832.)

Franklin D. Roosevelt had four years as governor of New York, two measly years in the legislature and had held a subcabinet position in Washington.

His cousin Teddy Roosevelt had slightly less experience (two years in the legislature, two in the governor's mansion) when William McKinley put him on the GOP national ticket 1900 (and, after McKinley's assassination, he became president).

Woodrow Wilson ties Sarah Palin. His entire pre-presidential career was a single two-year term as governor of New Jersey. He spent his adult life as a professor and later president of Princeton University.

Possibly, the most experienced president was James Buchanan, who is almost always ranked among the worst (the secession crisis that led to the Civil War started on his watch). He had five terms in the U.S. house, two in the Senate, had been ambassador to Britain and to Russia and held the top cabinet position of secretary of state.

Richard Nixon had a terrific pre-presidential resumé. He had been in the Navy, the U.S. House, the Senate and had eight years as vice president.

The first President Bush had one of the best-rounded pre-prez CV's. He had been a congressman, an ambassador to both the U.N. and to China, head of the CIA, Republican Party chair and had eight years as Ronald Reagan's understudy.

This site shows in tabular form the various amounts of pre-presidential experience and how the president's are ranked for greatness in at least one such greatness-ranking exercise.

You can certainly dispute who's greater than whom. And you can jawbone the different kinds of life experiences that should count. (Did I mention that Lincoln was also a storekeeper?) I think the overall record, amazingly, indicates that less-experienced presidents have outperformed more-experienced presidents. This is not a tight proof. But you can't look at the Lincoln-Buchanan comparison and believe that previous experience in high office is the key to presidential excellence. (I predict that the opposite belief will persist in future rounds, and so will the belief that running-mates should be chosen for their ability to carry their home states.)

What think?

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Comments (3)

Well done.

In reflecting on the experience issue, I draw some comparisons to the workplace, where experience does count, but only to the extent that it shows a person has demonstrated executive ability.

When a candidate with no "experience" comes along, one looks for personality characteristics that seem to match those of experienced leaders, because "experience" is a much broader term that previous particular "job experience."

We'll see how Palin's qualifications appear in a short while.

I think Michael Kinsley on the Slate site had it right when he said that you can't win on the experience argument: to an opponent, a former governor has no national experience, a former legislator has no executive experience, and a candidate with both is "a professional politician."

Nevertheless, today's challenges are great if not unprecedented, with much less scope for on the job training. We have a huge deficit and the prospect of ruinous entitlement payments as the baby boomers (I'm one) retire, the foreclosure crisis, a messy Iraq war to get out of somehow, the specter of a nuclear Iran, a highly competitive global economy. No one has the experience to tackle all these problems, but what I look for is intelligence, curiosity, good judgment, the confidence to choose advisers who are not yes-people and open-mindedness.

For a man of honor, character and integrity trumps friendship and experience.