Yes, But Which Experience?

Ross is right that conservatives have legitimate beef with the idea that a lack of a certain kind of experience is a deal-breaker for a candidate for, say, vice president. He is also right that the most relevant kind of experience in question, like it or not, is experience that has nothing to do with serving as a political executive:

She’s being judged, they complain, less on her record and her positions than on her ability to BS her way through “gotcha” questions from hostile interviewers, and she’s being found wanting because she isn’t as practiced in the art of the on-air dodge as more experienced politicians. […]

I think this view is wrong for several reasons: Because Palin’s relatively limited record in politics magnifies the importance of her public comments for anyone who’s trying to get a handle on who this woman is and whether she’s ready for high office; because her performance has been so comprehensively lousy that it has to reflect, to some degree, on her knowledge base and her understanding of policy as well as on her TV chops; and because like it or not, “proficiency on television” is simply a prerequisite for capable leadership in a mass democracy. But there’s a sense in which the apologists for her performance are getting something right: In the process of performing very, very badly on national television, Palin is holding up a mirror to the rest of the political world, and revealing how the mix of talking points, bluster, obfuscation and BS that nearly all national politicians traffic in as a matter of course sounds when it’s filtered through someone who isn’t practiced in it, and isn’t ready for the spotlight. Her performances reflect badly on her readiness for the vice presidency, no question – but they reflect badly on our whole compromised, spin-happy political class as well.

Obviously we are disgusted with this for the obvious reasons. But I think the reason why Republican critics of the high-gloss media machine are so upset about it vis-a-vis Palin’s flop sequence has less to do with the inherent disgustingness of political spectacle and more to do with their anger over the way the big-media format disables their much-loved candidate from providing them with the experience they get from her in other fora (like live speeches). The trouble is that “The Palin Experience” is grounded in cues and symbols that aren’t necessarily any less contrived, controlled, and even rigged than the ones that make you or break you on national television. Some of them are clearly more authentic — Todd Palin’s goatee, Trig Palin’s hairdo, Sarah’s own voice. The family’s size; the family’s moral and religious framework; their relationship with nature.

But Republicans are in the awkward position of celebrating The Palin Experience as something that transcends politics — when in reality, it can’t be anything other than a political experience. We can’t pull Palin out of the political skin of the relationship we have with her, and we can’t pull ourselves out of it, either. So Republicans are left yelling and screaming over Palin’s lack of media experience while urging the McCain campaign to “let Palin be Palin” — which affords a whole different kind of experience that still isn’t the political experience that’s supposed to be the better alternative standard to judging a candidate by their proficiency in front of the cameras. It’s one sort of spectacle-based relationship versus another, and it produces an awkward sort of conflict: not over which experience, but whose.

The experience question, finally, is less about the candidates’ experience than ours.