Working Pols

Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska accepts the vice-presidential nomination of the Republican party at the GOP’s convention in St. Paul, Minn., on September 3, 2008. (John Gress/Reuters)

Last week, there was a headline, reading, “Buttigieg Leaves Campaign Trail After Fatal Shooting. Reality Rears Its Head.” The article began,

While his 2020 rivals mingled with large friendly crowds at a Democratic fish fry in South Carolina Friday night, Mayor Pete Buttigieg found himself somewhere very different, wading into an emotional knot of protesters at the South Bend Police Department, some of whom cursed him, interrupted him and shouted a list of demands through a megaphone feet from his face.

As I look at the Democratic field, it sometimes seems to me that Buttigieg is the only one with an actual job. When you’re a senator or House member or whatnot, you can just talk: on cable, on Twitter, or wherever. What’s the difference between a senator and a pundit? Not much, it often seems to me.

On the face of it, it’s ridiculous that the mayor of South Bend, Ind., is running for president — of the United States. What the . . .? Then again, American politics throws up many surprises, as democracies tend to, and should.

Thinking about Mayor Pete, I thought of Sarah Palin, and, in particular, her acceptance speech at the 2008 Republican convention — one of the best political speeches I have ever heard. She had been governor (of Alaska) for just under two years. For six years, previously, she was mayor of Wasilla. A lot of people were jeering at that line on her résumé.

Addressing the convention, she said, “Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involved. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”

Brought the house down.

To be president, you have to be 35, and that’s about it. People bring a variety of experiences to the job. Consider the nominees in 2016. Donald Trump had been a real-estate developer and a reality-TV star; Hillary Clinton had been First Lady, a senator, and secretary of state.

Rick Brookhiser often said, “The presidency is not an entry-level political job, unless you’ve won a war” (like Eisenhower). The 2016 election upended that. Americans can nominate and elect whom they like.

When he ran in 1988, George Bush (the Elder) was occasionally spoken of as “the most qualified candidate,” or “one of the most qualified,” ever to run for president — and by “qualified,” people often mean “credentialed.” Think about it: Bush had been a U.S. House member. Ambassador to the U.N. Chairman of the Republican National Committee. Envoy to China. Director of the CIA. And vice president.

When it comes to qualifications, or credentials, I also think of James Buchanan — who had done everything. State legislature. U.S. House. Ambassador to the imperial court at Saint Petersburg. U.S. senator. Secretary of state — and some other things as well.

In my view, George Bush was a very good president — whatever his mistakes — and James Buchanan a very poor one — whatever his virtues.

You know whose record was rather unremarkable before he became president? Lincoln. One term in the U.S. House and four in the Illinois House. George Will says that, overall, Lincoln had “the greatest career in the history of world politics.” I’m inclined to agree.

When my friend Ted Cruz ran for president in 2016, my worry was that people would think him too green — not environmentally but in experience: He had been in the Senate for less than four years. Was it presumptuous to run for president on that experience? It transpired that, if anything, experience in government, of whatever duration, was a liability — because you were tainted, you see, as an“insider.” You had been in Washington — icky gross.

Again, the voters will do what they do, as is their right.

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