Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Qualified No

The McCain campaign got a bump when it started limiting his exposure to the media and sent Sarah Palin to the annex of Dick Cheney’s undisclosed location, away from any potentially embarrassing questions. Maybe they should lock the whole campaign down, since its surrogates can’t seem to keep their feet off their molars, either.

McCain’s economic advisors have a special gift for this. Phil Gramm famously declared this “nation of whiners” was undergoing only a “mental” recession. Just the other day Douglas Holtz-Eakin gave McCain credit for creating the Blackberry, which isn’t even an American invention. (It’s only fair to note the McCain campaign dismissed the comment and walked away from it immediately.)

Then there’s Carly Fiorina.

Submitting to an interview for St. Louis radio station KTRS yesterday, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO was asked if she thought Gov. Palin had the experience to run HP.

“"No, I don't," said Fiorina. "But that's not what she's running for. Running a corporation is a different set of things."

Carly, a contestant for this year’s Yassir Arafat Award for Never Missing an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity, then appeared with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC to compound the error.

MITCHELL: You were asked whether Sarah Palin has the experience to run a major company ... and you said, "No, I don't, but you know what? That's not what she's running for."

FIORINA: “Well, I don't think John McCain could run a major corporation. I don't think Barack Obama could run a major corporation. I don't think Joe Biden could run a major corporation. But on the other hand, running a major corporation is not the same as being President or Vice President of the United States. It is a fallacy to suggest that the country is like a company. So, of course, to run a business you have to have a lifetime of experience in business. But that's not what John McCain, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin or Joe Biden are doing.”

The author of the Slate piece, Christopher Beam, goes on to say, “Her answer is completely natural and nondamning if you look at the entire paragraph. (Although you could take issue with the ‘fallacy’ line, since George W. Bush did suggest that business experience matters.)”

Beam misses the point. What’s damning is Fiorina’s hubris. While her Wikipedia article has received the Sarah Palin Good Housekeeping Sanitizing treatment, her tenure at HP was beneficial for anyone but her. She walked away with a $21 million severance after being asked to leave by the board. Dismissing someone with that kind of package can be interpreted less as recognition of a job well done—if so, why was she shown the door?—than as a bribe never to return. Palin, McCain, Obama, and Biden may or may not be qualified t run HP; Fiorina certainly wasn’t.

Beam also misses the validity of her “fallacy” comment. There is little comparison between running a major corporation and running the country. The president’s job is infinitely harder. A CEO’s toughest decision may be to decide how many people will lose their jobs; presidents are routinely asked to decide how many people will lose their lives. Her implication that running a company may be the more difficult job isn’t just a conceit; it’s distasteful. A successful president could sit in a CEO’s chair, hire a few niche-specific experts, and run the show as a vacation.

The truth is, all the talk about which candidate is qualified to be president is a straw man; no one is truly qualified to be president until he’s been doing it for a while. The current occupier of the billet has been there over seven years, and he still can’t do it. The best we can hope for is someone with an understanding of the terrible responsibilities of the position, and skills that can be adapted to its performance.

That is the crux of the criticism of McCain’s appointment of Palin as running mate. It’s not that she’s unqualified; we just haven’t had a chance to see if she appreciates the magnitude of the job; her comments to Charles Gibson imply she does not, or she would have at least pondered it before accepting. Nor have we had a chance to see if she has a skill set that can be adapted to doing it right. A year ago Obama was not my choice for president, for exactly that reason. I hadn’t seen him around enough to have a feel for how he’d respond to things. He’s been on the news every day since, so many of my concerns have been addressed. Sarah Palin is well short of that threshold. (In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted Joe Biden was my original choice for president.)

One thing’s for sure: Carly Fiorina would almost certainly have a key role in a McCain administration. That should be enough to give even Sarah Palin second thoughts.

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