"That you may ruminate"

…On Experience and The Presidency.

Posted by Steve on August 28, 2008

I pay attention to the world around me, and thus I have become aware that once again, the unnecessarily long process of a U.S. Presidential Campaign is ongoing. And, it seems, much has been made of some candidate’s “experience”, and what that signifies regarding their ability to be “Commander-in-Chief”. I just plain don’t understand why anyone would bring that up. Way I see it, “experience” is only ever relevant when it reveals incompetence, dipshittery, or some other strong disqualification. In other words, having lots of experience can reveal negatives, or it can be irrelevant, but it can’t ever be a positive. Likewise, not having any experience is irrelevant, since that experience either wouldn’t matter or would reveal something bad.

Now, here’s why I think that:
The U.S. President has exactly 14 powers/duties/authorities, all but one of which are defined in Article II of the U.S. Constitution. They are:

  1. “The executive power.” This is a very vague, open-ended power, but I take it to mean that Congress and the Courts are Patrick Stewart and the President is the guy who has to make it so when they tell him, “Make it so.” As I see it, this makes the President the Henchman in Chief, or perhaps the Assistant Manager in Chief. Administrative experience is indeed relevant – except that millions of people have experience in receiving a set of instructions from one person and directing a group of people to carry out those instructions. Like, say, the assistant manager at every fast food restaurant in America, or every department manager at every department store in America, or… yeah. While it’s possible someone actually doesn’t have any experience at this, it doesn’t strike me as a likely-to-be-valid criticism of a candidate for President of the United States.
  2. The authority of being “commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States.” This is, of course, the origin of the “Commander-in-Chief” term used to designate the President. But please note: it’s a very limited Commander-in-Chiefship, as it’s scope is over only one thing, the armed forces, and there constrained by the fact that under Article I, the entire armed forces are subject to Congress’s rules. Thus, you can call the President the Commander-in-Chief, but that’s misleading since he’s only the Military Commander-in-Chief and still subordinate to Congress in that role. Of course, “Ex Officio Highest Ranking General and Admiral” is too much of a mouthful. And no President’s actually exercised their authority as Commander-in-Chief since Madison took control of Barney’s battery at Bladensburg in 1814. So… this strikes me as mostly a ceremonial, almost trivial, aspect of the President’s job. You know, like throwing the first pitch at the World Series and having tea and crumpets with foreign royalty. For a slightly different take on this power, I highly recommend this.
  3. The authority to “require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.” The President can make cabinet members and agency chiefs answer his questions in writing. Even granting for the sake of argument that there exists such a thing as meaningful experience at making people answer questions related to their job, what would that experience impart that its lack wouldn’t?
  4. The power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment. Now, that’s some combination of the powers of forgiveness and of something akin to jury nullification. I actually have very little experience with giving people forgiveness because I don’t believe in it, but really… Experience has nothing to do with being Pardoner-in-Chief, unless it’s lots of experience at forgiving people too readily.
  5. The power to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur. Experience at negotiation could be relevant – if the actual negotiations and treaty-draftings weren’t delegated to professional staff. Telling the staff what to negotiate for and what to write in the treaties, that’s the aforementioned administrative experience – and a matter of ideas, as in, “What will this candidate try to get put into treaties.” That’s a matter of ideology and goals, not of experience.
  6. The power to nominate and appoint, by and with the advice of the Senate, a whole heap of people unless they’re being appointed to a job that Congress said someone else would do the appointing to when it created the job. Named jobs consist of Ambassadors and “judges of the Supreme Court.” Makes me wonder if Congress could have vested appointments for Circuit and District Court judges in the Supreme Court. After all, Article III does specifically call those “inferior courts”, and it’s “inferior officers” where Congress gets to choose who does the appointing. I can speculate about that, of course, because it’s something where “experience” isn’t pertinent.
  7. The power to temporarily appoint the people described above without the Senate’s approval because the Senate isn’t in session. Experience still just isn’t pertinent.
  8. The duty to tell Congress about the state of the union “from time to time.” I love how that’s turned into a yearly thing rather than an “as often as I feel like it” thing, and while experience with public speaking may make him more comfortable, I don’t see where it’s really necessary.
  9. The duty to recommend to Congress such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient. This is the second most important part of the President’s job, and… EVERYONE IN POLITICS HAS EXPERIENCE AT IT. So what if someone has more experience at it? It just means they’re that much older. That much more out-of-touch with what’s pertinent, that much more stuck in the past, and that much closer to the inevitability of Alzheimer’s and death. Not to mention, this is somewhere that ideology and ideas count for everything. That someone with a decades-spanning track record of writing and voting for mediocre or even pernicious legislation is an inferior candidate to a 35-year-old with good ideas, worthwhile values, and desirable goals should be self-evident to everyone who isn’t part of why we have wolves and other large predators.
  10. The right to call Congress to emergency session and to tell them how long their break’s going to be if they can’t agree on their own. Experience matters why? Oh, it doesn’t.
  11. The duty “to receive ambassadors and other public ministers.” He has to stand on protocol and attend black-tie galas with foreign dignitaries. Etiquette could be relevant. Patience could be relevant too, having to put up with all that silly fooferah. Experience? Meh.
  12. The duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. Most important part of the job, and that’s a matter of integrity. Other than that, see above about being the guy who makes it so.
  13. The power to commission all the officers of the United States. I’m pretty sure this has something to do with promoting military officers, but honestly don’t know for sure what it means. Don’t think anybody’s got experience at it, either.
  14. The power to veto legislation. Third-most important part of the job (well, maybe second), and the sole part that comes from Article I. It’s about judgment, and judgment doesn’t come from experience. Judgment comes from intelligence, thoughtfulness, inquisitiveness, and proper values. An idiot with a lot of experience is still an idiot and will still make execrable decisions, while a smart rookie can kick ass and take names.
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