Putting the Inside In
Mark Patinkin’s mea culpa back on the twelfth gave a vaguely unsettling impression that he believes skill at being a Washington insider ought to translate to promotion as a Washington insider:
I’ll admit, Palin did better in the debate than I expected, and certainly deserves credit for becoming governor. But when you picture a possible first woman president, I’m surprisingly thinking: Shouldn’t it have been Hillary Clinton? …
… Obama earned his way onto the ticket through a year of debates, primaries and scrutiny, outgunning all rivals. Joe Biden, too, has been tested by decades in office and two presidential runs. Certainly, John McCain is unequaled in his experience as a national figure.
Note that the main qualification that Patinkin cites for the presidency is politics — playing the game. I’d suggest that we’ve lost sight, in these days of mass media and cults of personality, of the fact that the president is a leader, not just a leading practitioner of the campaign. Note that Joe Biden’s never come close to actually winning the office. Say what you will of him, but few Americans look at Mr. Biden and think, I would follow him.
Another Patinkin column expounding on the theme of “regular Joe” politicking points to the heart of the matter. Comparing Sarah Palin’s ascension to that of a mediocre pitcher who exudes an everyman quality, Patinkin writes:
… in this campaign, it’s how many are ready to pick a leader. I doubt that history will consider Sarah Palin a political visionary, but she draws tens of thousands to rallies because, well, she’s a folksy hockey mom, and that sells.
If you applied for a job as a carpenter, accountant or plumber, and your skills didn’t outshine other interviewees, I doubt you’d get hired by being folksy. You do in politics.
Even if Obama is not your candidate, let’s focus for a moment on his gifts as an orator who is well-spoken in interviews. That may be hard to do if you’re a McCain person, but humor me for a moment.
You’d think people would consider this a positive. Historically, our most notable figures, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, have used soaring language to move policy and inspire a nation. Fine oratory enhances leadership. And what better for America’s children than to have a president model superior speech.
But in this campaign, Obama’s oratory has been attacked as a negative. Both Hillary Clinton and John McCain have implied it proves Obama is nothing but fancy words — and that his soaring speech even makes him an out-of-touch elitist. Who knows, maybe he is. But they’re not just attacking Obama, they’re attacking eloquence itself and saying prose — even on the stump — beats poetry.
Fine. Let’s stipulate that compelling oratory “enhances leadership.” So does empathy with those whom one leads. Obama’s good at relating to intellectuals (whether actual or self-presumed); Palin’s good at relating to just about everybody else. Neither skill is leadership, per se.
With that admission ought to come a further note that presidents have cabinets and commissions. Advisers and (sometimes) astrologers. The key determinant of our votes, in a representative democracy, is whether we trust those whom we elect to take the various forms of input and respond in a way that’s consistent with our beliefs and needs as we understand them.
In that respect, being an insider truly ought to be a hindrance, because insiders are invested in the solutions that they’ve helped to contrive in the past. What we need are leaders who will sort through the file cabinets of government and create a “stupid idea” pile. Obama promises that sort of leadership, but his claims have become increasingly laughable as the partisan days have passed. Sarah Palin (running for VP, let’s remember) may or may not be that sort of leader, but she’s articulated the spirit with an eloquence beyond words.