Almost immediately upon John McCain’s Earth-shattering selection of Sarah Palin Friday, the Obama campaign and other left-leaning pundits shot back with cries of the Alaskan governor’s “inexperience.”
For that matter, and in spite of the seismic energy that seemed to have resurrected a largely lethargic and disillusioned conservative base, there were even some on the Right that were less than enthusiastic with McCain’s choice of Palin because of the latter’s alleged “lack of experience.” Their concern is that since McCain and Republicans generally have made Barack Obama’s “inexperience” a key issue in this presidential race, Palin’s addition to the ticket threatens to nullify this strategy.
I reject the argument from inexperience, whether it is used against Palin, Obama, or any politician running for the presidency.
That I am no fan of Obama is a brute fact to which anyone can readily attest. Yet for all my criticisms, I have never said anything about his “inexperience.” Joe Biden’s comment that the presidency “isn’t something that lends itself to on-the job training,” while perhaps widely held, is at best puzzling, at worst profoundly mistaken.
When it is said of a politician (or anyone, for that matter) that he or she lacks the relevant experience for any given job, what is being said of that person is that he or she lacks knowledge of that job’s demands. That is, those who make the argument from inexperience assume that knowledge is ultimately based on experience, by which is meant habit or practice.
This conception of knowledge is sound, as far as it goes, and it has found support from conservative thinkers from Aristotle to the present: if you want to know -- genuinely know -- what cookery requires, you must know how to cook, and if you want to know what carpentry demands, you must know how to do carpentry. But the only way to know how to be a cook or a carpenter is by practicing cookery and carpentry, respectively. Yet what is true of carpentry and cookery is true of all human activities: knowing is inseparable from and dependent on doing.
Just the slightest reflection on any human practice, from science to mathematics to language use, readily confirms that knowledge is indeed experience. Yet this we seem to either truly forget when we accuse Obama, Palin, or anyone else of being too “inexperienced” to be president, or conveniently ignore so as to score political points.
If, as the argument from “inexperience” itself supposes, knowledge of any given activity can be had only from routinely engaging in that activity, then no one except for a president can really know what being a president requires. In other words, only those who have occupied the office of the presidency can be said to have the requisite “experience” for the job. Thus, in this sense, all of the candidates on both the Democratic and Republican tickets are “inexperienced” vis-à-vis the office of the presidency.
Yet there are a few considerations to bear in mind:
- It is precisely because the presidency is such a crucial job that no president is ever without a small army of advisors. The effectiveness of the “3:00 A.M. phone calls to the White House” ads notwithstanding, no president’s decisions are made, or expected to be made, independently of the counsel of numerous others whose jobs exist for the sole purpose of seeing the president along.
- The argument from inexperience as it pertains to the presidency is one that our Founding Fathers would have found exceptionally peculiar. The men who crafted and approved the United States Constitution never envisioned “career politicians” of the Biden/McCain variety, and they expected the offices of government to be occupied by ordinary American citizens who, upon fulfilling the “call” to public service, would return to the private stations from whence they came.
- The presidential office is an executive office. Insofar as Palin is the only person on either ticket who has the experience of discharging executive responsibilities -- she was a mayor and a governor -- she has less inexperience than McCain and their rivals. When Democrats attempt to make an issue of her “inexperience,” they point out the speck in their neighbor’s eye while neglecting the beam in their own.
- Finally, next to the presidency itself, the vice-presidency is the closest -- and best -- thing to “on the job training” for the presidency as any. It is an apprenticeship, of a sort. Let us not forget that Palin is not running for the presidency, but for the vice-presidency. Obama, on the other hand, with zero executive experience, expects to be president in just two short months.
We would all be well served to let it go the way of the dinosaur.