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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Palin & the structural protections of federalism

The blogs are abuzz with whether or not Palin ought to be regarded as sufficiently experienced to serve as VP. The typical defense of Palin's nomination emphasizes that she is the only one of the four nominees for Prez or veep with 'executive" experience, having served as a mayor of a small town and, briefly, as governor of a small state.

Naturally, opinions on the merits of Palin's candidacy correlate heavily with partisan prior commitments. But, as a federalism nut with weak partisan loyalties, I am much more interested in what Palin's nomination says about the structural protections for federalism in America. The argument that her experience trumps that of three Senators because it is "executive" in nature is, as a practical matter, an enormous boost to state politicians in the federal system, simply because there are obviously far more elected non-federal executives than federal ones. Thus, mayors and governors will gain an advantage over members of Congress in competing for the Presidency. If one buys the notion that these politicians will carry with them an affection for their old role as non-federal office-holder, then one might argue that the Presidency will tend to reflect state politicians' point of view.

The argument that executive experience is superior to legislative experience might even give mayors and governors an advantage over congress persons when running for congressional office. The reason is that executive experience tends to be less ideologically divisive than legislation. A chief executive can take credit for good economic performance in his or her state without alienating blues or reds; moreover, an executive can make lots of managerial micro-decisions that are not ideologically freighted and, thus, win a non-partisan reputation for competence: Think of Mayor Bloomberg's pressing for hybrid cabs or making the clean-up of the East River a top priority.

These are just theoretical speculations. As I have observed in an earlier post, the dominance of governors as candidates for the Presidency is a relatively recent affair, dating from Watergate, when claiming the mantle of an outside untainted by Washington's ways was an electoral advantage that boosted the candidacies of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bush II, and Bill Clinton. (By contrast, Truman, Ike, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were all federal politicos or, in Ike's case, a federal bureaucrat). The Watergate-derived outsider's advantage might be waning. Therefore, I'll be curious to see how well the "executive experience" argument fares in Palin's campaign. Quite apart from its partisan ramifications, its success promises to be an aid to federalism. And nowadays I am inclined to think that federalism needs all the help that it can get.

Posted by Rick Hills on August 30, 2008 at 12:31 PM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink


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If I am Obama, I love the executive experience argument. If you compare political experience generally, McCain has much more than Obama. Even more so national political experience. Or experience in elected office.

But that conservatives would gleefully act like lemmings in parroting the line that Palin has more EXECUTIVE experience than Obama is absolutely hilarious. Obama has less executive experience than Palin, which is to say, exactly the same as McCain:


Posted by: Bart | Aug 30, 2008 5:42:17 PM

Actually, the list of governors who became president argues against the value of executive experience, because at least arguably their greatest screwups — whether considering ideology or not — resulted from misapplication of executive skills. (N.B. I served as an officer under three of them.) Consider:

* Nixon's win-at-all-costs "executive strategy" for Watergate, his importation of state-level "executive experience" to DC (especially in his staff), and inability to prioritize

* Carter's importation of state-level "executive experience" to DC (especially in his staff), mismanagement of the military, and inability to prioritize

* Reagan's importation of state-level "executive experience" to DC (especially in his staff), mismanagement of the military and labor issues (such as, but not only, PATCO), and inability to prioritize

* Clinton's importation of state-level "executive experience" to DC (especially in his staff), mismanagement of the military, and inability to prioritize

* George III's importation of state-level "executive experience" to DC (especially in his staff), mismanagement of the military, and inability to prioritize

This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a recommendation for the "Governors make better Presidents due to their executive experience" meme.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Aug 30, 2008 2:12:00 PM

Leaving aside the strategic elements of the Palin choice (I really think it will be a terrible blunder by Obama to keep inviting the Palin "experience" contrast), three points:

(1) Adding "executive" in front of experience carries linguistic associations with the presidency itself.

(2) The phrase could just as easily be applied to the head of a corporation.

(3) They "typical" Obama-camp response has been to marginalize her city of 9,000 and to minimize her time on the job as governor of a "sparsely populated" state.

I think all this, except for point (1), points to the fact that both camps are not "talking down" to the American people and assuming that "executive experience" is a hard-and-fast formal category (if it were, your point would be strong), but rather that your average voter is sophisticated enough to be able to distinguish between a state senator who "just" shows up to vote, a mayor of a small town, a mayor of a large city like Chicago, and the head of a national electoral campaign. At the end of the day, I'm not sure state and local governments have an advantage, for all the above and also because the "federal" government and "Washington" might still have awe-inspiring baggage that would counteract any such advantage.

Posted by: AndyK | Aug 30, 2008 1:37:33 PM

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