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September 10, 2008 10:29 PM   Subscribe

With all the talk surrounding Sarah Palin's apparent relative lack of foreign policy knowledge and experience, just how important have those factors been historically when it comes to governors serving as president or VP?

I'll trust that MeFi can provide some details of past administrations without things getting into a partisan squabble over the current race:

Even just going back to recent history, four of the last five presidents had only served as governors prior to winning election (while all of their VPs had served in Washington). What were their respective backgrounds when it came to foreign policy, and how did it end up playing out during their terms?

All I've heard on the matter during panel discussions on the news lately was a brief mention of (Bill) Clinton serving as chair of the National Governors Association, along with the fact that governors generally oversee their respective National Guard units.

How much are non-Washington candidates typically versed in world affairs prior to the start of their campaigns? Is it just expected that they'd do some heavy-duty "cramming" on such matters during the campaign and the early part of their term, while relying on the backgrounds of their running mates in the meantime?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing to Law & Government (17 answers total)
 
Trying hard not to be snarky here, but I might fail.

I think you're missing a matter of degree here.

Nobody expects a governor to have extensive experience actually wielding foreign policy. Palin is like other governors running for high office in that respect.

But people do expect a governor running for the white house or blair house to display some interest in the matter and knowledge about it. That is, we might reasonably expect a governor with national ambition to be able to walk into a fancy party somewhere and converse knowledgeably about what's going on in the world, and how that relates to political history, with some ideas of what has worked in the past. Palin at least seems to be unlike other governors in that respect. She at least seems to have less interest and knowledge of foreign affairs than a habitual reader of the Economist.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:20 PM on September 10, 2008


As Vice President, it doesn't matter in the slightest. The VP only has two functions, constitutionally speaking: 1. To break ties in the Senate, and 2. to be ready to succeed to the office of President if that office becomes vacant.

It's only in that latter case that it matters at all.

There have been 46 Vice Presidents. Of those, 9 became President through the succession (Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Ford), just slightly less than 20%.
posted by Class Goat at 12:01 AM on September 11, 2008


And it's not so much the foreign policy experience that makes most reasonable people gape in shock at her nomination, but the lack of all (meaningful) experience.

And please no BS about "executive experience". I've got 10 times as much executive experience as she does, but in no way does that qualify me for the job. Nor should it.
posted by Aquaman at 12:09 AM on September 11, 2008


As ROU_Xenophobe says (despite having a foreign-policy unfriendly name), there's the assumption/hope that talented ambitious people will have pushed and done everything they could possible have done in any job role they had, and had a curiosity about the world. (Rather than an all-about-me will-this-be-on-the-test approach to getting ahead.)

Even if McCain is as strong as a mule, we are at war - it's kind of a big issue in the US of A these last few years and to be out of touch with that and our relationships with potential allies is hardly a good rec for a politician who seeks the national stage.

And there are all those jokes about the veep job being state funerals. I've head Kim Jong Il is not well - what if she had to go to his service and got all confused about which Korea she was in?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:23 AM on September 11, 2008


Here's a link
(if my link works, it will be a first and a celebration will ensue...here and anywhere else someone is looking for an excuse to celebrate.)

My thinking on this is that character, vision, energy, clarity of thought, a boatload of common sense, and the wisdom to surround oneself with people who know what you don't, characterizes most successful executives. And most effective people in any endeavor. We all know brilliant people with extensive education who have held impressive-sounding positions, yet showed no ability to make good decisions and effectively lead.

It's a crapshoot, isn't it, and really requires a few of those same qualities in us voters to make a good decision on who will make a good leader?

Personally, I don't think I would make a great executive. I'm smart, well-read, have traveled fairly extensively and am up on current events as well as history...but I don't think I have the ability, if it comes down to it, to make quick decisions confidently and inspire the same confidence in those who would be looking to me for leadership. I'm introspective, tend to see way too many sides to a question...I might make a good philosopher or maybe even do ok in a think tank...But ultimately I'm a theoretician. And I'm a person who likes to create consensus and get along and find commonality (mostly!) That is not an executive. So don't vote for me. Don't even write me in.

I guess my point is...and it's only my personal view...that innate abilities have a lot more to do with effective presidents than a boatload of knowledge. Certainly Abraham Lincoln had no experience in leading a fractured country at war with itself. Nor had Jefferson a lot of knowledge of the political origins of the pirates he was forced to deal with, or Franklin Roosevelt a military background. Surely innate leadership qualities as well as wisdom and discernment in picking whom to listen to and whom to trust were salient features of their presidencies. That and being exceptional politicians!!

Think Woodrow Wilson, Neville Chamberlain. Erudite, highly educated, knowledgeable...pretty ineffective when push came to shove. So...like I said, something of a crapshoot.

Just one woman's opinion.

Caveat... I realize I am just brushing the surface of this subject.
posted by mumstheword at 12:54 AM on September 11, 2008


There have been 46 Vice Presidents. Of those, 9 became President through the succession (Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Ford), just slightly less than 20%.

But VPs in general have a 1 in 3 chance of becoming president - that reality coupled with the overtures McCain has made toward being a single term president mean that Palin has a higher chance than most of becoming president, either through election or attrition.

Palin would have raised eyebrows no matter what, but because it was McCain who picked her, her political experience - particularly the part about foreign policy is being watched closely.

Compounding the fact is that the country finds itself at an international crossroads of sorts. Globalization with its impact on the economy and jobs, two war fronts, a resurgent Russia, and rapidly militarizing China all play a role in making foreign policy into a dinner table and water cooler topic. In the past... say, in the early 90s, most people probably wouldn't focus on intermestic issues, but would instead look toward political leaders who had domestic experience. 1992 was a good year for Bill Clinton - a state governor who was running at a time when the international stage seemed tame by today's standards.

Palin is the oddest pick for the times.
posted by wfrgms at 1:02 AM on September 11, 2008


As Vice President, it doesn't matter in the slightest.

Except that it's hard to imagine, after eight years of Dick Cheney's expansive approach to the OVP -- or rather, the collective approach, since those executive powers are entirely delegated -- that the job will return John Nance Gardner levels of irrelevance. When you pull an elastic band for a while, it doesn't snap back all the way.

As far as foreign policy goes, Bill Clinton had a pretty decent grounding. He had the fortune to share a home state with William Fulbright, and worked part-time on Fulbright's Foreign Relations Committee staff while at Georgetown (international relations undergrad) and retained an interest in foreign policy while governing Arkansas. Ronald Reagan was a Cold Warrior, and was a prominent voice in the foreign policy conversation right through the height of the Vietnam War, while Governor of California. Bush 43 had the ear of the GOP foreign policy establishment from the moment he declared. Carter was probably the least exposed of the governors, but to be in gubernatorial politics during the early and mid-70s at least to some extent required a position on the big foreign policy issues of the time.

Your question sounds almost like a long essay or thesis topic. You could fill one. You can argue that Carter's relative inexperience manifested itself in his emphasis on principles rather than policies, and that you can't run foreign policy on principles alone. You can talk about the role of the foreign policy establishment during those campaigns, and the relationship of staff picks to the consensus position -- ForPol tends to offer more room for consensus, even if that coalesces around the wrong things.

As ROU_X says, it's an issue of basic curiosity, a degree of engagement with the Big Wide World, and some degree of cluefulness, matched with the ability to hire and/or listen to the right people.

An analogy: the ESPN SportsCenter anchors are sufficiently good at their jobs to cover soccer highlights for the Top Ten, putting the emphasis in the right places, but you can tell which ones don't have a clue what it is they're describing.
posted by holgate at 1:09 AM on September 11, 2008 [3 favorites]


As Vice President, it doesn't matter in the slightest. The VP only has two functions, constitutionally speaking: 1. To break ties in the Senate, and 2. to be ready to succeed to the office of President if that office becomes vacant.

You're confusing constitutional requirements with reality. Not just Cheney, but also Gore and Mondale, have expanded the role of the VP to be one of the major players in the administration. So this matters for VP as well as Pres.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:46 AM on September 11, 2008


Jaltcoh,

Frankly, it's up to the President to decide how involved the VP should be in day-to-day decision making, not what Cheney, Gore or Mondale did. It's not as if future Vice Presidents will inherit any additional obligations due to the responsibilities of previous VP's.

Also, the fact is that neither Truman, nor Carter, nor Clinton had significant foreign policy experience before running for President.

How much foreign policy experience a VP-candidate SHOULD have is a fundamentally political question, and not one that is likely to be settled on AskMeFi.
posted by BobbyVan at 6:25 AM on September 11, 2008


[comment removed - this thread is not talking about Palin, don't make it into a fight about Palin, thank you]
posted by jessamyn at 6:33 AM on September 11, 2008


I must amend my Truman quote somewhat. Though he was often ridiculed for being provincial, he was a US Senator before VP and had been active in foreign affairs. Plus, when Truman actually ran for President, he had already been serving as President, and had dropped the bomb and overseen the Berlin Airlift (among other things).
posted by BobbyVan at 7:20 AM on September 11, 2008


Then-Governor Bush claimed his foreign policy experience dealing with Mexico qualified him to be president.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:54 AM on September 11, 2008


But people do expect a governor running for the white house or blair house to display some interest in the matter and knowledge about it.

Not to be picky here, but no one can "run" for Blair House. It's the President's guest house, and is typically used for visiting heads of state/government.

The VP official residence is at the Naval Observatory.
posted by BobbyVan at 9:55 AM on September 11, 2008


Foreign policy is pretty irrelevant for the vice-president. However, if McCain is elected, it's almost certain that Palin will either assume the presidency (due to something happening to McCain), or run for president at the end of McCain's term in 2012 or 2016. In that position, yes, foreign policy expertise will be very relevant.

14 vice-presidents have gone on to become president:John Adams had to deal with the French and English war.

Foreign policy drove the Bush presidency; operations were conducted in Panama and the Persian Gulf at a time of world change; the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union dissolved two years later.

While Jefferson was president, Great Britain declared war on Napoleon, and Napoleon declared war on Europe.

Van Buren had to deal with the Aroostook War and the Caroline Affair, straining relations with Britain and its colonies in Canada.

Arthur pushed for the expansion of the United States naval fleet.

Coolidge encouraged isolation. However, in 1925, he sent U.S. Marines to Nicaragua after civil war broke out, and then tried to negotiate a compromise with Nicaragua, which failed and resulted in armed conflict. In 1928, he signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, designed "to renounce war as an instrument of national policy."

During Fillmore's presidency, the United States negotiated a treaty with Great Britain about a possibility of a canal being built across Central America.

President Ford tried to improve the stability of global relations. His administration met with the Soviet Union to discuss nuclear weapons limitations, and assisted Israel and Egypt during times of crisis.

Andrew Johnson purchased Alaska from the Russians.

Lyndon Johnson escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam by sending additional troops. In Cuba, the American military base at Guantanamo Bay was cut off in an attempt to force their departure. Johnson responded with threats of continued U2 spy-planes over Cuban airspace.

Roosevelt led the U.S through the Great Depression and WWII.

Truman dropped two Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after which Japan surrendered. He issued the Truman Doctrine and implemented the Marshall Plan, and also organized the United Nations.

Tyler annexed Texas and settled disputes that erupted along the Maine-Canada border.

Nixon ended American involvement in Vietnam and improved relations with the Soviet Union and Communist China.

[source] [source]
posted by designbot at 10:06 AM on September 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Roosevelt led the U.S through the Great Depression and WWII.

Wrong Roosevelt.
posted by Class Goat at 10:39 AM on September 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have a very complex conspiracy-based theory of world history, in which the Panama Canal is known as the "Great Depression" and the Russo-Japanese War is referred to as "World War II." Sorry for any confusion.
posted by designbot at 10:44 AM on September 11, 2008 [1 favorite]


Jaltcoh, Frankly, it's up to the President to decide how involved the VP should be in day-to-day decision making, not what Cheney, Gore or Mondale did. It's not as if future Vice Presidents will inherit any additional obligations due to the responsibilities of previous VP's.

I didn't mean to turn this thread into a treatise on the vice president's role in government, since that's not really the question, but briefly: you're still confusing the law with a lot of other things that matter: custom, tradition, history. Those things can change even if the law doesn't change. The Mondale/Gore/Cheney string of important VPs might be just a coincidence, a fluke, with no bearing on the future. But I tend to think that if that's what the trend has been, then things will continue to be that way. And it certainly shows that you can't dismiss the VP role as someone who only attends funerals and waits for the Pres to die.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:06 AM on September 13, 2008


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