The twist-yourself-in-knots-to-oppose-Palin-on-grounds-of-inexperience exercise being indulged in by those otherwise ecstatic about Barack Obama and indifferent to his lack of experience is truly astounding to behold. It is leading them into some fascinating mistakes. For example, Andrew Sullivan — who is quickly displacing David Gergen as the most ideologically elastic person in the annals of recent history — this morning: “It’s the most irresponsible decision by any leading presidential candidate since Bush picked Quayle.”
The thing is, if you were going by “experience” as your guide, Dan Quayle was eminently qualified to be president according to the standards of our time, at least. He had been elected twice to the Senate and once to the House. He had drafted major domestic-policy legislation on job retraining, and was a leading light on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Quayle had served twelve years in Washington, which is what led to him accurately saying in debate that he had the same level of experience as John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was elected president (the line that set Lloyd Bentsen up to say, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”).
The problem with Quayle wasn’t that his resume was lousy. It wasn’t. He was, perhaps, the most politically accomplished 41 year-old in the United States at the time. It was that his behavior — first in his introductory appearance as Veep and then with the malapropisms that dogged him throughout his tenure in the White House — made him seem like a lightweight, and thereby called his judgment into question.
Judgment, comportment, the largeness that seems necessary to hold high office without questionable baggage — these are the qualities that matter. There are, recall, no Constitutional qualifications to occupy the presidency other than being 35 years of age and a native-born American. It is voters who determine the qualifications of their president, which is why having an arguments over experience is the sort of thing that delights those of us who spend our time traveling to conferences in other countries and reading foreign-policy journals, but means absolutely nothing to voters. Nor should it. If it did, Richard Holbrooke might be installed as president, or Bob Kagan.
Palin will be a failed pick if her conduct between now and November 4 reveals that she does not have the judgment to be a heartbeat away; that her comportment is not what we would wish of our leaders; and that she does not seem large enough for the office. A great many things will go into determining all of those things, as they are right now with Barack Obama — and, incidentally, John McCain, who has every qualification for the presidency one could imagine except that he hasn’t won an election for it yet.
The effort to pre-determine her unfitness is not only a losing proposition; there is something fundamentally foolish, about it. Even un-American, in the sense that it suggests rule by wonk rather than popular fiat. Ask Bill Clinton, who tried his best to make the case against Barack Obama and then stood on stage on Wednesday night explaining to America that people were saying about Barack Obama just what they had said about him, Bill Clinton, 16 years ago. That is what interesting elections do. They up-end expectations.