The Corner

Peggy Noonan and George Will on Experience and Sarah Palin

I’ve had a chance to catch up with K-Lo’s interview of Peggy Noonan, and I confess to continued bafflement over her treatment of Sarah Palin, as well as Palin’s treatment by George Will, on whose assessment Ms. Noonan relies in forming her own.  To Kathryn’s favorable view of Gov. Palin, Noonan responds:

Well Kathryn, we have disagreed on the meaning and implications of Mr. McCain’s choice of Mrs. Palin. Here are some cool words from a cool head, George Will, who saw early on what a number of us came to see, and who said better what I would try to say later. “The man who would be the oldest to embark on a first presidential term has chosen as his possible successor a person of negligible experience. Any cook can run the state, said Lenin, who was wrong about that, too. America’s gentle populists and other sentimental egalitarians postulate that wisdom is easily acquired and hence broadly diffused; therefore anyone with a good heart can deliver good government, which is whatever the public desires. . . . John McCain’s opponent is by far the least experienced person to receive a presidential nomination in the 75 years since the federal government became a comprehensively intrusive regulatory state and modern weaponry annihilated the protection the nation derived from time and distance. Which is why McCain’s case for his candidacy could, until last Friday, be distilled into two words: Experience matters.” Kathryn, Will wrote those words shortly after the choice was announced. In retrospect his judgment seems to me not only correct, but somewhat prescient.

OK, experience matters — but what if it’s bad experience?  I ask because I have now read through all Ms. Noonan’s Wall Street Journal columns since Sen. Joe Biden was chosen to be Sen. Barack Obama’s running-mate in late August.  (They’re collected here.)  There are no Noonan columns on Biden (there are several on Palin).  (Mr. Will, whose Washington Post columns are collected here, and whose reservations about McCain I share, has similarly written no Biden columns since Biden’s selection.)  Doesn’t what we’ve learned from Biden’s experience matter?

Moreover, look at what Ms. Noonan says (especially as highlighted below) in this fleeting claim about Biden (which she understandably makes no attempt to back up) in the context of the VP candidates’ debate in October: 

Joe Biden seems to have walked in thinking that she was an idiot and that he only had to patiently wait for this fact to reveal itself. This was a miscalculation. He showed great forbearance. Too much forbearance. She said of his intentions on Iraq, “Your plan is a white flag of surrender.” This deserved an indignant response, or at least a small bop on the head, from Mr. Biden, who has been for five years righter on Iraq than the Republican administration. He was instead mild.

Understand, she’s talking here about Biden:  the guy who was in favor of invading Iraq and insistent that invasion meant we were in for the long-haul … until it got hard and he decided we should pull out; the guy who was in favor of the surge … right up until it was ordered, and then decided the surge couldn’t work; the guy who said timelines for withdrawal were arbitrary and self-defeating … then demanded timelines for withdrawal; the guy who wanted to divide Iraq into three religio-ethnic enclaves … which would have resulted in mass bloodshed and displacement; the guy who would have lost the war had we been foolish enough to listen to him — a war as a result of which al Qaeda stands routed rather than ascendant.  In truth, the only thing Ms. Noonan gets right about Sen. Biden in this passage is that he presumptuously and recklessly assumed Gov. Palin was an idiot and that proved — consistent with the arc of Biden’s career — to be a gross miscalculation.

Now, of course it’s reasonable to object to Palin because she is inexperienced, to wish McCain had chosen someone with more experience, and to argue as Noonan and Will do, that the selection of an inexperienced running-mate undermined the best rationale for voting McCain (viz., his experience advantage over Obama).  I don’t agree with the upshot of those arguments:  I think they undersell Palin’s experience and upside, and ignore that McCain would not have a chance to win the election had Palin not energized the conservative base that doubts McCain for all the reasons George Will has recited with characteristic acuity.  But even though I disagree, I certainly understand the gravity of Noonan and Will’s point.

What I continue not to understand, however, is how they figure the sparse experience of someone like Palin, who is obviously smart and has the potential to grow, is somehow inferior to the mounds of experience of someone like Biden, who has managed to be on the wrong side of every important national security question of the last three dozen years (and that’s without even considering how appalling Biden has been on judicial nominations and other issues). 

Ms. Noonan is a Will fan (as am I), so might I suggest this passage from a recent Will column drawing the cognate comparison between McCain and Obama:

It is arguable that, because of his inexperience, Obama is not ready for the presidency. It is arguable that McCain, because of his boiling moralism and bottomless reservoir of certitudes, is not suited to the presidency. Unreadiness can be corrected, although perhaps at great cost, by experience. Can a dismaying temperament be fixed?

I guess it depends on whose unreadiness and whose dismaying temperament we are talking about.

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