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Gerson vs. Harris: Is Palin Prepared for the Presidency?

In the latest print edition of NEWSWEEK, atheist author Sam Harris and former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson duke it out over the question of whether Sarah Palin is experienced enough to be president. I weighed in on the topic earlier this month, writing that "when it comes to the length and atypicality of their resumes, Palin and Obama are pretty similar... Where they differ is in what kind of experience they have--and how that experience resonates with the people already inclined to support them." As a way of advancing and expanding the debate, I thought it'd be worthwhile to post key excerpts from the Harris and Gerson essays, which are among the best I've read on Palin. Let me know what you think; the comments are all yours.

HARRIS: The point to be lamented is not that Sarah Palin comes from outside Washington, or that she has glimpsed so little of the earth's surface (she didn't have a passport until last year), or that she's never met a foreign head of state. The point is that she comes to us, seeking the second most important job in the world, without any intellectual training relevant to the challenges and responsibilities that await her. There is nothing to suggest that she even sees a role for careful analysis or a deep understanding of world events when it comes to deciding the fate of a nation. In her interview with Gibson, Palin managed to turn a joke about seeing Russia from her window into a straight-faced claim that Alaska's geographical proximity to Russia gave her some essential foreign-policy experience. Palin may be a perfectly wonderful person, a loving mother and a great American success story—but she is a beauty queen/sports reporter who stumbled into small-town politics, and who is now on the verge of stumbling into, or upon, world history.

The problem, as far as our political process is concerned, is that half the electorate revels in Palin's lack of intellectual qualifications. When it comes to politics, there is a mad love of mediocrity in this country. "They think they're better than you!" is the refrain that (highly competent and cynical) Republican strategists have set loose among the crowd, and the crowd has grown drunk on it once again. "Sarah Palin is an ordinary person!" Yes, all too ordinary.

We have all now witnessed apparently sentient human beings, once provoked by a reporter's microphone, saying things like, "I'm voting for Sarah because she's a mom. She knows what it's like to be a mom." Such sentiments suggest an uncanny (and, one fears, especially American) detachment from the real problems of today. The next administration must immediately confront issues like nuclear proliferation, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and covert wars elsewhere), global climate change, a convulsing economy, Russian belligerence, the rise of China, emerging epidemics, Islamism on a hundred fronts, a defunct United Nations, the deterioration of American schools, failures of energy, infrastructure and Internet security … the list is long, and Sarah Palin does not seem competent even to rank these items in order of importance, much less address any one of them.

GERSON: The response in some quarters to the selection of Palin was sneering. An Obama spokesman immediately called her the "former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign-policy experience." But claims about the importance of experience are inherently complicated for both parties in this election. If Palin's governing résumé is thin, Barack Obama's is thinner. If Palin's lack of experience is meaningless, Obama's case to be commander in chief is strengthened.

But the accusation here is not really that Palin lacks experience; it is that she lacks the right experience. She attended the University of Idaho, entered a beauty contest, joined the NRA and a church where people speak in tongues and was elected to govern a state with few Starbucks. Obama rose quickly from Columbia to Harvard Law, taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and joined the most exclusive club in America, the Senate. Even with no governing experience, he can claim what might be called "elite experience." And this is enough for elitists...

Presidential historians count experience as one possible contributing element to presidential success—but there are others. "Experience matters," historian Robert Dallek has said, "but its importance is terribly overstated." Predicting the ideal combination of background, skills and values in a successful president—or VP—is no easy task. And it cannot be argued that elite experience is somehow the key.

Americans who support Palin are not fools, peasants or theocrats. They have reasons, which elites may not agree with, but cannot dismiss. Many are attracted to her because she embodies the values of the American West, which they find superior to the values of coastal elites. This was part of the appeal of Goldwater and Reagan—a log-splitting, range-riding conservatism that emphasizes freedom. (Palin adds moose hunting to the list.) It's not irrational or simplistic for voters to prefer candidates who reflect their deepest values.

To others Palin represents a different kind of feminism—feminism without liberalism. Many women seem enthusiastic about supporting a woman leader who struggles with the balance of work and family, takes on the old-boy network and yet rejects the agenda of the National Organization for Women. And Palin appeals to many voters as a pro-life symbol, with a family—including a son with Down syndrome—that exemplifies a culture of life. Elites may dismiss this as trivial or backward. But there's no deeper question of political philosophy than this: whom do we count as a member of the human family and protect as our own? Palin welcomed a disabled child—the kind of child often targeted for elimination through eugenic abortion. It's not irrational for Americans to support a candidate who is willing to protect the weak.

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