The Double Talk Express
When it comes to the GOP, your experience ain't like mine.
When it comes to the GOP, your experience ain't like mine.
"He was wearing my Harvard tie. Can you believe it—my Harvard tie? Like, 'Oh, sure,' he went to Harvard."
--Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd) from Trading Places (1983)
All summer long, John McCain has been selling the idea that a guy who graduated at the top of his Harvard Law class, who went from living on food stamps as a kid to becoming a best-selling author, university professor, community organizer, corporate lawyer, seven-year Illinois state senator, four-year U.S. senator, and Democratic presidential nominee is "inexperienced."So how has McCain continued to score points by trashing Barack Obama's experience with the far-less accomplished Sarah Palin as his own running mate?
Considering the way they've sneered at the job title "community organizer," Republicans might argue that it's because they don't view helping laid-off Chicagoans find work as an accomplishment. Or maybe they're worried that as an expert on the Constitution, Obama might actually try to uphold it.
A more plausible explanation is that in our society, we're accustomed to thinking of African Americans as the go-to demographic when it comes to winning Olympic medals and selling ringtones, but not necessarily as the bull pen for future heads of state. So if you close one eye and tilt your head ever so slightly, you can translate that sentiment into a political meme—Britney + Paris + Palin = sexism -- Unacceptable; Britney + Paris + Obama = unqualified black guy -- But, of course. That might sound far-fetched, but if you toss in the Republicans' nervy effort to repackage a potential 16 consecutive years of Republican presidents as "change," you have a classic bait-and-switch: claim your opponent's strength as your own, drop some balloons and hope no one is paying attention.
You won't hear this argument from Team Obama, and you shouldn't; as long as he's running for president, it's up to him to convince voters that he's the right person for the job, whether or not he's subject to a double standard. But what is confounding is the lack of acknowledgment that the double standard even exists.
McCain's claim to the experience mantle is based on a vague assumption that just because he's been in Congress for 35 years, voters should accept on faith that he knows what he's doing, even though his singular legislative accomplishment is McCain-Feingold—unpopular and ineffective campaign "reform." But his record has gone largely unchallenged because it's easy to conflate his seniority with preparedness.
Meanwhile, the notion of Palin as an experienced leader has been hastily cobbled together around the amorphous political caveat that a governor's executive experience is somehow more valuable that the experience senators acquire as legislators, and is thus more ready to lead as president. But consider that Palin is a first-term governor of the third smallest state in America. With a population of less than 700,000, Alaska is smaller than Charlotte, N.C. When Palin was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, the town had a population of roughly 5,000. By comparison, Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles has over 5,000 students. By that logic, Palin's level of experience comes in somewhere between the mayor of Charlotte and a high school principal.
While Palin has no experience at the federal level, Obama is the only candidate who has been elected to positions in both state and federal government. Of course, Palin is running for vice president and Obama is running for president, but it's clear at this point that Obama is running against both McCain and Palin, upon whom rests the future of the Republican Party.
During their convention last week, McCain and the Republicans unveiled their strategy designed to misdirect on the issue of experience. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asserted that Palin's resume is "stronger than Barack Obama's." He offered up Palin's confrontations with members of her own party in Alaska as an example of her mettle, saying of Obama, "He has never once shown that kind of courage." To round out his criticism, Gingrich claimed, "I don't know a single thing Obama's done other than talk and write."
This argument asks voters to forget the rational comparison, that in 2003, Obama's public opposition to the then popular Iraq war was at least as courageous as Palin's decision to run for governor. It also completely sidesteps the seemingly obvious allegory that Gingrich himself has never done anything but talk and write. These talking points demonstrate that Republicans believe they can convince voters that Palin is "ready" to be President (and Obama is not) simply by repeating it over and over again.
On Meet the Press, Minnesota's Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty described Obama's experience: "He's basically graduated from law school, went on to be a community organizer and a law professor, went to the U.S. Senate and began running for president, essentially, the day he arrived." What's missing? Obama's three terms in the Illinois state senate.
In several speeches, prominent Republicans like former presidential candidate Fred Thompson have slipped in the remark that Palin is governor of the "largest state in the Union," overlooking the accepted standard of ranking the size of states by their population, not their acreage. This, in addition to the absurd trial balloons floated around her foreign policy experience in dealing with Alaska's next-door neighbor, Russia. Keep believing that one, and soon enough, we all really will be Georgians.
But the most disingenuous riff on experience has come from Palin herself. The memorable theme from her convention acceptance speech was her now-famous chiding of Obama for his work as a community organizer, blithely dismissing a core precept of contemporary Republicanism: that the private sector can solve problems better than the public sector. And she's continued to play up a phony feud with the media, the only industry in which she was employed prior to going on the government payroll.
It would seem, intuitively, that in selecting Palin, McCain would have ceded the experience issue altogether as a trade-off for gaining some of Palin's more marketable attributes. But it has become clear that the McCain campaign will be arguing that Palin is the freshest face in the campaign and the most experienced.
This line of attack is being fed to a public that seems predisposed to believing its lying eyes. So when McCain refers to Obama as inexperienced, it's worth asking: What is it that he's really trying to say? That Barack Obama has been slacking off all of these years? That if Obama didn't have such a winning personality he'd be working third shift at the post office? That he's already been overseas winning the hearts and minds of our allies and enemies, but he's still just a "celebrity?" That he's no George W. Bush?
The fact that Obama has had to withstand almost constant attacks about his experience from the same political party that still claims Bush as its standard bearer is beyond hypocrisy. As Bush himself might say, it's the soft bigotry of high expectations.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.