While suffering through Sarah Palin’s fake peppiness and babying expressions during the vice presidential debate Thursday, I briefly found myself longing for the screeching monotones of Hillary Clinton — those I once thought might qualify as part of the new “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But as that moment of weakness passed, Palin’s insolent idiocy brought some familiar questions to my mind.

Why do we Americans expect so little of our political candidates? Why is it that we fear candidates who bring something more than folksiness to the table? Why is anything that hints at an education suddenly regarded as elitist?

The two elected branches of our government are extremely powerful, especially the legislature. For all the talk of checks and balances, Congress has almost unlimited power to make laws (presidential vetoes can be overridden) and is hardly checked by anything outside itself.

The immense power of the presidency, too, hardly needs to be recounted, especially with the emergence of “the imperial presidency” perfected by George Bush and Dick Cheney. As Bush has shown us, the president can fight wars without congressional declaration, undermine new laws with signing statements and pardon criminals at will.

Yet what do we require of the people who seek to win the presidency or a seat in Congress? We want charm and likeability. And we despise anyone who dares suggest education is also a qualification. We recognize the presidency as the most powerful office in the world and still have the impudence to insist that the person who fills that office should be an everyday Joe Sixpack/hockey mom.

In a way, this attitude is uniquely American; we’re proud that our system gives regular people, not just familial elites, the chance to be leaders. Yet, in another way, this attitude is uniquely ludicrous: It ignores the fact that our leaders have to be the best among us. Everyday people have the opportunity in our country to better themselves, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t qualifications for elected office.

Compare that situation to the judiciary. You won’t find anyone arguing that we need real people, outsiders or mavericks in our state or federal courts. When it comes to major court appointments we’re almost always talking about a person who went to Harvard or Yale Law School. Isn’t that disgustingly elitist?

Of course not. Judges, as members of the all-important third branch of the government, have a very serious job to do, and we want to make sure we only get the best people. Going to a top law school and graduating near the top of a your class are unstated requirements — and they should be. The law is complex, and we need people who have been formally trained in it to serve on the judiciary.

But is the judiciary really so different from the legislature? Is the job of Congress any less complex than that of courts? Crafting legislation to reflect new and changing realities is a huge challenge. We would never let an average Joe near the Supreme Court, so why do we continue to trust the legislature, the primary phase of law in our country, to guys we’d like to have a beer with?

Now I know that saying these things makes me a rabid elitist to about 55 percent of this country, but why is that? All I’ve said is that the people who do some of the most important jobs in the United States should be specifically qualified for them. We would never tolerate a judge who didn’t go to law school, so why take pride in congressmen or presidents who have no grounding in government and whose one virtue is affability?

Despite the high standard to which the judiciary is held, any decision a court makes can be overturned by Congress with a statute, and all courts in the country (except the U.S. Supreme Court) can be shut down or altered radically by Congress. And yet there is no such thing as legislative school to ensure competent legislators.

Barack Obama must avoid like the plague any mention of having gone to Harvard Law School, lest he be called an out-of-touch elite. And a marvelously intelligent and educated woman like Gov. Jennifer Granholm must dumb herself down, acting like a petty saleswoman to win our votes. Why are we making candidates run away from all the things that give them relevant knowledge and experience for governing?

This all brings us back to a key practical question: How can anyone possibly believe that Sarah Palin — whose sheer ignorance might actually make Bush look good in comparison — belongs anywhere near the presidency?

Imran Syed was the Daily’s editorial page editor in 2007. He can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.