Alter: McCain, Palin and the 'Experience' Issue

Faced with a shaggy, seat-of-the-pants convention, Republicans are determined to get back on message. So now their new, more disciplined line is about experience. That's right, after John McCain selected a vice presidential candidate who is clearly unprepared to be president, his aides—and any other Republicans who want a future in the partyare singing from the same choir book. In speeches, interviews, a new ad, and even off-the-record sessions with reporters, the line is that Sarah Palin is more prepared than Barack Obama to be president.

I asked a senior McCain aide on Tuesday: "So what you're saying is that Barack Obama is not ready to be president on day one, but Sarah Palin is?"

"Yes," he said with a straight face.

Obama won 18 million votes, faced countless tough interviews and emerged with a reputation for fluency in discussing affairs of state, whatever one thinks of his politics. Palin's vote totals for mayor were measured in the hundreds; she has served only 20 months as governor of a state half the size of Brooklyn, and knows nothing of national or international issues beyond energy.

No matter. The argument stands.

Here's the logic, if you can call it that. Governors and mayors have executive experience, and the presidency is an executive job. Palin has been a manager and Obama has not. When faced with the obvious question—"So does that mean that Palin is more qualified than McCain, who has never been an executive?"— Republicans (working from talking points) have an answer. McCain commanded a training squadron in Florida in 1976 (the fact that he was not promoted to flag rank afterwards doesn't get mentioned).

This is what it has come to. But how? Before we understand how experience got back into the campaign, we have to recognize why it disappeared with the Palin pick.

The Obama campaign claims that it's simple. "They [McCain and company] spent four months trying to make this about experience and it didn't work," says Obama communications director Robert Gibbs, visiting St. Paul to offer a little spin of his own. "The McCain campaign recognized that this election is about change, and that's why they changed their strategy."

The idea behind selecting Palin was to move away from the experience argument—which hadn't worked for Hillary Clinton—and toward a campaign theme focused on reform and resistance to Washington business-as-usual. In other words, McCain picked Palin, in part to steal some of Obama's thunder; not just with women and younger voters but among those hungry for change.

Unfortunately for McCain, problems with that approach arose immediately. Even many Republicans believe it irresponsible of McCain, now 72, to put someone so lacking in familiarity with Washington (and the world beyond America) a heartbeat from the presidency. At least governors who have run for president have studied national and global problems for a couple of years. Palin has not. Moreover, Palin's credentials as a reformer were tarnished by reports that he she had favored the inexcusable "Bridge to Nowhere" before she opposed it, and as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, had hired a Washington lobbyist to obtain $27 million in federal aid for her town of less than 9,000, not including an expensive passageway from Wasilla to Sen. Ted Stevens's country home nearby.

Meanwhile, second thoughts emerged about jettisoning the experience argument altogether. "Ready to be president" had been the centerpiece of McCain's campaign and it looked a little cynical to junk it overnight. It was also inconvenient to explain why McCain had stated repeatedly that the most important criterion he was using in choosing a vice president was the capacity to be a highly qualified president on day one if necessary.

So the McCain camp decided to try to make lemonade out of lemons (though they remain hopeful that Palin herself will turn out to be a peach). McCain aides figure that any day spent talking about experience—even if their argument about it is absurd—is a good day for McCain and a bad day for Obama. Their presidential candidate has it; the Democrat does not. The rest, they figure, is just noise.

Will it work? It depends on how successful the McCain campaign is at keeping Palin from embarrassing herself. Her lack of experience will only become an issue if it is manifested during the campaign. To decrease the odds of a gaffe, expect her to be carefully shielded from the questions of tough-minded reporters.

I'd imagine that Palin will dodge press conferences in favor of interviews with people like Sean Hannity, Larry King and Ellen DeGeneres. Then, when the media complain that she is being kept away, the McCain campaign will cite the half dozen or so interviews she has granted as proof that the campaign press is just bellyaching. Brief press "avails" on the plane will be useless, unless reporters ask open-ended queries designed to elicit proof of real knowledge.

That should get Palin through the next three weeks. By the end of the month, the McCain camp can say she has to go to ground to prepare for the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate, where expectations will be so low for Palin that she will likely emerge intact. It will be up to the press and public to raise enough of a stink about this, that Palin is forced to submit to real interviews with real questions that show whether her real-life experience is any preparation for assuming high office. In that sense, the Palin nomination is as much of a test of us as it is of her.