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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Are You Experienced?

Everyone cites concerns over "experience" as a motivation for supporting their candidate and denigrating the other guy (or gal). It might be more enlightening to talk about experience in general terms and how different types of experience might or might not apply to high office. Where should the next President come from? If the Oval Office is "the show", what serves as AAA ball for up and coming political talent? What experiences SHOULD serve as qualifications for the Presidency?

State Government

Party pros and voters alike often view a governorship as an obvious launch pad for any potential Presidential bid. The thought is that state governor roles are like a "mini-Presidency", with a state House, state Senate and state Supreme Court to deal with, just like the "real thing." Even better, many states have clauses in their Constitution REQUIRING balanced budgets so many think that governors have a better grasp of what it takes to make "tough decisions" and hold down spending. The theory sounds good but reality is quite different.

In reality, the balance of power between the governor and other branches of state government varies between states. Texas is a classic example of a "weak governor" state. Most of the executives in the "Executive Branch" are elected, not appointed by the Governor. (#1) The balanced budget requirement also warrants careful review. A state constitution requiring balanced budgets just makes it easier for the governor to say "no" when spending maxes out revenues. It does NOT ensure tradeoffs made to meet a balanced budget have any sense of logic or coherence to them or that the governor can break an impasse with an intransigent legislature (This is ostensibly why California Governor Schwarzenegger won't be attending the GOP convention.) State-level balanced budget amendments certainly do not guarantee any such governor will exhibit the same budgetary willpower when placed into an environment where balanced budgets are NOT required and the government can influence monetary policy and, to some extent, cook its own books by altering economic statistics.

Another common suggestion of governorships being good training for the Presidency is the exposure to military issues via command of state National Guard troops. In a word, NO. Federal use of state Guard forces and resources has trumped local / regional use any time contention has arisen. State governors make no strategic decisions on development of new weapons systems and have little veto power over tactical questions regarding the deployment of state forces as backfill for overseas full-time forces. In essence, a governor's interaction with National Guard troops may provide "training wheels" experience in managing FEMA ($5.8 billion out of $46 billion in DHS -- see #2 and #3) but is in no way a useful introduction to global military strategy or Defense Department administration ($481 billion for the Pentagon for 2008 --- see #4).

The Boardroom

If we're looking for a "CEO" for the country, what better place to look than the boardrooms of Corporate America for a real CEO? This approach seems to arise from a relatively recent belief over the last twenty years that government doesn't work because it isn't run like a modern, efficient business. If we could only get someone who knows what it's like to make a payroll, to comply with millions of pages of government regulation and make constant make-or-break decisions, government could become much leaner and more efficient. There are NUMEROUS obvious flaws with this belief. Exhibits A and B would be the lists of American automakers and financial firms teetering on the brink of bankruptcy (and threatening to capsize the entire economy with them) because of flawed short-term thinking, gross mismanagement and outright fraud.

The more subtle problem with the boardroom as training ground is that the dynamics of power and persuasion within a private or public company are vastly different than in government. Persuasion and personality obviously play a key role in climbing the corporate ladder and operating as CEO on a daily basis. However, when key decisions come up, CEOs typically have the final say and don't have to spend much time smoothing ruffled feathers. Presidents have similar power within the Executive branch with personnel and administrative interpretation of laws and enforcement but the analogy ends there. CEOs don't have to contend with other independent branches of their firm that have subpoena power over their actions. CEOs are free to change the direction of the company (within reason) without daily consultation with stockholders. Presidents cannot change laws and change the direction of the country absent positive action from Congress.

House / Senate Experience

Veterans of the House or Senate often cite a track record of constituent friendly legislation as proof they can "get things done" and that they "understand the real problems" of voters. Given the dependency upon the Legislative branch to initiate new laws, experience in the House or Senate is arguably the single most useful experience to bring into the Presidency. Failing to understand the egos at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue and the trade-offs and compromises Senators and Representatives must make in the course of their work is almost a certain guarantee of failure as President. However, having legislative experience alone is not sufficient background for the Presidency. (See next section.)

The Insider / Outsider Debate

Widespread corruption in Washington has led many across the political spectrum to throw up their hands and claim that the only way to clean up corruption INSIDE the beltway is to get someone from OUTSIDE the beltway inside the belly of the beast to attack corruption. Think of this as the "Mr. or Ms. Smith Goes to Washington" approach. It should only take two words to refute this theory.

Jimmy Carter.

Above all, the Carter Administration was noted for the inability of Jimmy Carter and his staff to establish any sort of working relationship with Congress. As Governor of Georgia, Carter had no long term relationships with players at the national level and everyone in his Rolodex he felt comfortable including in his Administration had equally limited contacts with the established players in the Legislative branch, including within his own party.

Obviously, long-time insiders have problems on the opposite side of the spectrum. Continued exposure to flawed or corrupt processes makes it difficult to break with contributors and do something "outside the box." Players with a long legislative background operating inside a flawed system will inevitably have dozens of votes on flawed legislation that can be pulled out the closet to combat any attempt to make positive changes.

Intelligence Versus People Skills

Is a really smart person ideally suited for the Presidency? No. Is a really good "people person" ideally suited for the Presidency? No. Effective leadership requires different skills at different times. If you're sitting in a Cabinet meeting as subordinates put secret Executive Orders legalizing waterboarding, illegal wire taps, extraordinary rendition, and the creation of a third state of existence outside US and international law, you need to be a really smart person with some formal background in the basics of the Constitution, the law, and legal precedent. You're holding the pen, you have to make the right decision. If you're huddling with leaders of the House and Senate trying to resolve a deadlock on legislation involving entitlement spending that can bankrupt the country if left unchecked, you need people skills to find areas of compromise, frame a solution as a win-win scenario and lead people to consensus. A modern term for this balance is "emotional intelligence". Either skill without the other will inevitably limit a President and harm the country.

Is Anyone Truly Ready Day One?

Stop and think back to the inauguration photo and last day photo of any President over the past 60 years. Think about the stress levels that produced those changes in appearance while in office. Now think about what happens as a new President takes office. There's the obvious handover of the codes in the nuclear "suitcase" (or whatever its current non-hot Cold War equivalent might be). What's less obvious about that Day One experience is that first REAL security briefing for the new President. Presidents-elect immediately begin receiving more detailed security briefings as they begin forming their transition team. However, it is clear there are some things you aren't told until after taking the oath. Think of it as an inventory of all the "skunk works" projects underway in the name of We The People known by only an handful of people.

Until the new President hears THAT list of items in mid-flight, no would-be President truly can say they fully grasp the responsibility they are assuming. That first post-inauguration security briefing is likely where many Presidents first realize the true constraints imposed by reality on what they will be able to accomplish and start grasping the promises they made as a candidate that will go unfulfilled as President.

What the Present Tells Us About the Future

There seem to be people in both the Republican and Democratic parties who are either unhappy about their own party's choice for President or Vice President or amused at their opposing party's choice of the same, all based upon experience. If you are concerned that a Presidential candidate or a VP candidate could seemingly come from nowhere without proving themselves on the national stage first, think about the functions the parties should be performing but are not.

In the August 2008 primaries in my state, one candidate mailed a series of post cards stating their vow to NEVER, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, vote to raise taxes.


Never? Even if an F5 tornado leveled a local high school to the foundation? Even if an earthquake struck, destroying hundreds of miles of county and state roads?

I don't think these inappropriately doctrinal stances by local politicians are uncommon. The economics of being involved at politics at the local and state level make it difficult for large numbers of "average Americans" to participate. How many people want to spend their evenings listening to arguments over zoning for a new car dealership in their city or county council for paltry pay? There are surely quite a few good citizens who are attempting to do what's best for all of the citizens of their local community. However, the local political environment also attracts extremists of both parties trying to push agendas that have nothing to do with local government. It also attracts people with major conflicts of interest in those zoning laws that bore most of us to tears but are near and dear to big box retailers looking for TIF handouts and subsidized road improvements for their investments.

If national elected positions serve as triple A ball for the White House, then local and state offices act as farm team development for those national offices. Because the issues and roles are so different between the local / state level and Federal level, there isn't a predictable, obvious "career path" for someone seeking national office or the Presidency that will reliably confirm the candidate is ready for "the show". That means We The People have to pay more attention, ignore the labels the candidates hang on themselves or their opponents, and THINK.

At this point, that seems like a mighty tall order.


#1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_of_Texas

#2) http://www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=34749

#3) http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/budget/gc_1170878892732.shtm

#4) http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2008/defense.html