Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lincoln: Gone With the Wind. Buchanan: Police Academy 4. Obama? Who knows?

"With forty years of experience in the House, the Senate, the foreign service, and the cabinet, (James Buchanan was)... one of the best-trained men who has ever occupied the presidency." --David Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1976, p. 297.

"(Buchanan) certainly did not lack relevant experience when he assumed the Presidency. For nearly forty years he had served almost continuously as Representative, Senator, Minister to Russia and Great Britain, and Secretary of State." --David Currie, The Constitution in Congress: Descent Into the Maelstrom, 2005, p. 255.

"James Buchanan worst President, scholars say." --Headline of this article.

As the debate gets more and more heated over whether Barack Obama has sufficient experience to be Commander-in-Chief, or whether Sarah Palin has sufficient experience to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency, it's instructive to pull back from the present for a moment and jump into history. That way, we remind ourselves that the guy sometimes cited as the Chief Executive with the most experience upon assuming the post is also the one often cited as the most torridly awful President ever. Let alone not being carved into Mount Rushmore, you will notice that James Buchanan's visage does not appear on stamps, coins, or even bobble head dolls.

And who replaced him in the White House? Abe Lincoln, arguably the man least experienced for the job, but often hailed as the best President. You just never know who is going to grow into a job and who isn't.

In 2008, as in 1860, a skinny lawyer from Illinois without an extensive resume is a leading candidate for President. Michael Medved has written an article on the comparison between Lincoln and Obama; since Medved first achieved fame as a movie critic I thought I'd incorporate that into the title of this blog entry. You will notice that Medved omits a few pesky little details when they don't correspond to his theory that Lincoln was much better qualified than Obama. Most especially this is apparent when Medved writes:

"(Lincoln) ran again for the Senate in 1858, challenging the nation’s most prominent and powerful Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, electrifying the public in every corner of the nation with their famous debates. By contrast, Barack Obama waged his one U.S. Senate campaign against a carpet-bagging embarrassment and fringe candidate (Alan Keyes) who took the Republican nomination after the formidable prior contender withdrew in a divorce-related sex scandal."

No mention of one significant point: Obama won. Lincoln lost. You can't use the results of these elections as evidence that Lincoln was more experienced than Obama unless you take the old saw that one learns more in defeat than in victory to absurd levels.

Since we're jumping into history here, let me just note that Obama would have won the Senate seat in 2004 even if the rules had been the same as they were in 1858. Article 1, section 3 of the U.S. Constitution originally provided that each state's two U.S. senators were to be chosen "by the Legislature thereof." This was changed by the Seventeenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, holding that each state's two U.S. senators were to be chosen "by the people thereof." It's easily forgotten today that Illinoisans in 1858 didn't actually vote for Lincoln or Stephen Douglas; they voted for legislators who would select the man to represent them in Washington. (There was a new wrinkle in the process that obviously was a step towards popular democracy: the Republicans selected Lincoln as their candidate for senate at the party's state convention before the legislature met to select nominees, as had been the prior custom, see Simon, Lincoln and Chief Justice Taney, 2006, p. 142.)

What if Obama had run for U.S. Senate in 2004 and the rules were still as they were drawn up in 1787? That is, what if it was Obama vs. Keyes but the Illinois legislature and not the voters at large did the choosing?

Assuming a party line vote, Obama would have prevailed under those circumstances as well. The 95th Illinois General Assembly featured 37 Democrats and 22 Republicans in the state senate, and 67 Democrats and 51 Republicans in the house.

But there is a much larger historical issue suggested by the Medved article that I wish to address. He writes:

"No contemporaries questioned Lincoln’s candidacy on the basis of lack of experience while all impartial observers of the contemporary season note Obama’s absence of preparation for the world’s most challenging job."

When we consider the historical difference between Lincoln's times and Obama's, this is silly on a number of levels. Lincoln, as we hopefully remember from high school, spoke against slavery and advocated keeping it out of the territories. That alone was reason for voters in the South to reject him; they wouldn't have had a different opinion of Lincoln if he had served eight years as Illinois governor plus twelve years in the Senate. Medved's remark is like saying that if your friend fixes you up a a blind date with a woman who looks like John Madden, you're not going to be mad at your buddy until you find out the girl can't cook.

But never mind hostile Southerners, what about contemporaries not questioning his lack of experience who were more in line with Lincoln's way of thinking--other northern Republicans, in other words?

Again, remember the difference between running for President in 1860 and doing likewise in our time. Lincoln wasn't standing in front of fire houses in New Hampshire in two feet of snow shaking hands and begging for votes so he could get the Republican nomination. Back then, delegates didn't go to their respective conventions already knowing who the nominee was, they went to the conventions to select a nominee.

The 1860 Republican Convention, which lasted only three days, is covered in great detail in The Impending Crisis. "As the clans gathered," David Potter writes, "it was clear that (William) Seward stood far in the lead over all the other candidates... The basic question... was whether Seward would gain the nomination by virtue of his great initial strength before the opposition could unite. It appeared to be Seward against the field" (p. 422). One could say that the position of Seward on May 16, 1860, when the convention came to order, was similar to the status of Hillary Clinton among the Democrats last December.

But there was a mammoth difference between Seward and Clinton. Seward needed only to hold his place as the presumptive nominee for three days in a hall in Chicago among a handful of people. Clinton had to compete in caucuses and primaries all across the nation over a period of six months and among millions of voters.

Neither one of them succeeded, of course. For the record, Seward had a commanding lead on the first ballot of the 1860 convention; he received 173 ½ votes, to 102 for Lincoln, with three other candidates getting between 48 and 50 ½ votes. Alas, Seward's impressive first round tally still wasn't enough for him to receive the nomination, and as other candidates dropped out, their votes went mostly to Honest Abe. Lincoln got the amount of support required on the third ballot (The Impending Crisis, pp. 428-29).

The point is: what happened to Hillary Clinton earlier this year also happened to William Seward--but it happened in only three days. Now if the 1860 political process had been the same as today, if Lincoln and Seward faced off in primaries and caucuses across the land spread over half a year, don't you suppose Seward would have done the same thing in almost every single stump speech that Clinton and John Edwards did once the Obama ball got rolling? That is, wouldn't Seward have declared almost daily that Lincoln was too inexperienced to be President?

So even if Medved is right that Lincoln wasn't publicly labeled unqualified by his contemporaries--and I don't know enough about William Seward, Salmon Chase, or any of the other prominent early Republicans to say if it is or not--the statement totally misses the point. In the first place, there wasn't time for Seward or anybody else to decry Lincoln's inexperience. And in the second place, Lincoln prevailed among his party's voters in spite of his inexperience, just as Obama has. A few dozen people in 1860 and a few million in 2008 said, in effect, "We don't care that there are other candidates with more experience, this is the person we want to hold up for election in November."

I can't end this without pointing out an irony. The second quote I offered at the top of this entry is from a book by David Currie. The liner notes inform us that he is a Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. And who else was a professor of law at that esteemed school for twelve years?

See Article II, section 1 of the Constitution: "Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:— 'I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.'"

That's the thing about experience: a person may lack it in one relevant area but possess it in spades in another. Yes, Barack Obama is unusually unqualified to be President of the United States if you consider only the political positions he's held. But on the other hand, who is better qualified to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States than a guy who taught it at an elite law school for a dozen years?

I've focused here on Obama, but Sarah Palin is also young, and thus also lacking the experience one might expect from candidates one or two decades her senior. But neither Obama nor Palin is clearly disqualified from the office they seek. The debate should focus on the issues, not the resumes.

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