Experience counts, up to a point

David Brooks joins the debate over whether Sarah Palin is qualified to be vice president. His answer is no. Laura Ingraham responds that Palin “respresents a solid vice presidential” pick. As readers know, I tend to agree with Brooks’ conclusion.

Brooks overstates his case, though. He argues (1) that governance requires prudence above all else and (2) that prudence is acquired through experience. Brooks defines prudence so as to make the first proposition virtually indisputable. But the second proposition is too broad. A relatively inexperienced candidate can be more prudent than an experienced one. The virtues of experience are (1) for a high-caliber individual, experience will increase prudence and (2) with experience comes the meaningful track record (administrative, legislative, or both) through which we can best judge the caliber and the prudence of a candidate.

Ingraham’s denunciation of Brooks’ position raises at least as many questions as it answers. Her view is that elites (including conservative ones) do not make better policy judgments than “average Americans.” She points to the decisions made during the Bush administration on the advice of highly experienced advisors such as Vice President Cheney and former Secretaries Rumsfeld and Powell.

But does Ingraham believe that a President Palin would decline to include highly experienced individuals among her top advisors? Palin herself has said nothing to signal this intention; to the contrary, she has praised John McCain for his vast experience.

Moreover, to the extent that Ingraham favors reliance on inexperienced advisors, she overlooks the fact that the Reagan administration included members of the elite. George Shultz and Caspar Weinberger, for example, served with distinction. She also misses the fact that the some of the very worst performances in the Bush 43 years were turned in by relatively inexperienced officials like Alberto Gonzales and “Brownie.”

In any case, the distinction between an experienced president and an inexperienced one is not likely to be the amount of experience his or her advisors possess, but rather how well he or she selects experienced advisors and processes the resulting advice. Other things being roughly equal, the more a president knows and the more experience a president has making tough decisions, the better a president is likely to perform.

That’s why “average Americans” have usually expected candidates for national office to possess either substantial experience in Congress or substantial experience as a governor.

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