"They misunderestimated me."
So said then-candidate George W. Bush of his opponents on the eve of the 2000 presidential election. At the time, the remark was added to a long list of Bush gaffes and malapropisms. But maybe he coined precisely the right word.
Given the president's very successful week -- in which he won a resounding victory in Tuesday's elections, then secured a unanimous resolution on Iraq from the U.N. Security Council -- his supporters and many of his opponents found themselves agreeing that he has often been misunderstood and underestimated. For more than two years, at the mere mention of George W. Bush, critics on the left started hooting over his fractured syntax, counting his IQ and tsk-tsking over his simplistic foreign policy. Sample Web site: toostupidtobepresident.com. Even some Republicans joined in behind closed doors.
Then Bush ran the table on Nov. 5 -- the first president in almost 70 years to pick up seats in both houses of Congress in a midterm election -- and steered the French and Russians into cracking down on Saddam Hussein.
Absolutely, said Bruce Reed, one of the longest-serving advisers in the Clinton administration, and no great fan of the president. "Democrats routinely sell Bush short," he said. "It's a mistake for a number of reasons."
But not a new mistake. Many Democrats and Republicans in Washington felt a tremor of deja vu last week, scary for some, gleeful for others. This is not the first time a less-than-flashy president has irritated, then thrashed, America's liberal, educated elite. Something about Bush's situation last week made people remember former president Ronald Reagan.
Like Bush, Reagan was considered by the left to be less than the sharpest knife in the drawer. Sometimes, this amused his opponents and sometimes it seemed to frighten them. A 1987 protest by Nobel laureate Sheldon Glashow against Reagan's proposal for a nuclear missile shield -- which Bush has renewed in a revised form -- captured both aspects of this reaction. It was "dumb, destabilizing and damned dangerous," Glashow said.
People with even longer memories went all the way back to the 1950s, when liberals swooned over the witty and urbane Illinois governor Adlai E. Stevenson, only to see him trounced twice by homespun Dwight D. Eisenhower. For people who enjoy their bon mots en francais, the Republican Party has been serving up frustrating presidents for much of the past half century.
"It brings up the old saying: 'Republicans are the stupid party,' " a GOP Senate aide said last week. As if to refute the idea, he indulged in a bit of casual French himself: "Liberal elites associate conservatism with things declasse," the staffer said. "The folksiness, the simpleness, simply repels them."
And that may be precisely where liberals get into trouble. So says Reed, loyal Democrat and a Rhodes scholar and thus a card-carrying member of the intellectual elite. When Reed says it is a "mistake" for Democrats to misunderestimate Bush, he has at least three reasons in mind.
The first: "Book smarts have not necessarily been a perfect indicator of presidential success." Another: "It's always a mistake to personalize the argument." A third: "It plays directly into Bush's strength, which is that he comes across as a regular guy."
Take them one at a time.
It seems fair to say that history establishes no direct correlation between being "smart" -- in the tweed-wearing, George Kennan-quoting, anagram-solving, faculty-club sense -- and being an effective leader or winning politician. America has built memorials to genius leaders, such as Thomas Jefferson, and to last-in-their-class types, such as Ulysses S. Grant. The country has been guided fairly well by Woodrow Wilson, a Princeton president, and by Harry S. Truman, a shirt salesman.
That said, there has been for at least 2,500 years a school of thought that says "smart" people make better leaders. In the "Republic," Plato argued for a reign of philosopher-kings. There has also been, at least since the days of Andrew Jackson, a strong streak in the American people that prefers a common touch over an advanced degree, and "horse sense" over erudition, any day.
Republican consultant Ed Rogers, a veteran of the Reagan White House, believes this anti-intellectual streak is not just a quirk -- it is an insight. "Being president isn't about taking the SAT test," he said last week. "If you look at companies, it's rarely the most IQ points that's the CEO. You can always hire as many geniuses as you need."
According to Rogers, the qualities that make an effective president -- that is, a vote-getting, victory-winning president -- include: "not being intimidated by information," "finding the right people and asking the right questions," and "not being an anguisher -- before the decision, and especially afterwards."
It is this last quality, he said, that liberal intellectuals don't understand. Americans prefer "sunny, optimistic presidents," Rogers theorized, whereas "intellectuals are tormented people. "Think about it," he said. "Have you ever met a really happy French philosopher?"
When Republicans think of Reagan, they don't think "dumb;" they think "visionary." And the most important of Reagan's optimistic visions, most Reaganites believe, was his faith that standing up to the Soviet empire would eventually lead to its collapse. Geopolitics that had been hugely complicated for decades, occupying thousands of intellectuals for millions of angst-ridden hours, under Reagan could be jotted on a 3-by-5 card: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Many conservatives see Bush in this same light, with the war on terror as a sort of reprise of the Cold War. All violent fundamentalism requires in the Middle East, the theory goes, is someone to stand up to it, and it will collapse as surely as communism did. Because, as Bush put it in a speech last summer: "The peoples of the Islamic nations want and deserve the same freedoms and opportunities as people in every nation, and their governments should listen to their hopes."
This sort of thing strikes conservative Rogers as "sunny, wholesome patriotism." To the intellectuals who have been opposing Bush on Iraq for much of the year, it is simplistic, unsophisticated, even dangerously naive. One side sees the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Berlin Wall collapsing; the other sees a sort of Vietnam in the streets of Baghdad.
Reed's second point had to do with the problem of personal attacks. Whenever Democrats complain about Bush's intelligence and judgment, they are making a mistake similar to the one Republicans made by relentlessly attacking former president Bill Clinton's private life in the late 1990s. In both cases, the attacks bleed over to implicate the voters who chose these men. And voters don't like to be hectored about their decisions.
"It's important to understand where the American people are coming from," Reed observed, "and not assume that they are always wrong. You're not going to get votes by assuming that, as a party, you're a lot smarter than the voters."
Bush doesn't mind having intellectuals misunderestimate him, said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine. Kristol has some authority on this because, having supported Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) against Bush in the 2000 primaries, Kristol was guilty of some misunderestimating himself. "He has a certain understanding of what arguments will work with the American people," Kristol said.
Which leads to Reed's third point. Given a choice between having the votes of intellectuals and the votes of everyone else, the Republicans and George W. Bush are happy to take Option B. More voters are turned off by casual talk about IQ and reading habits than are turned on.
"Everybody knows what they need to know about human nature by about the third grade," Rogers theorized. "The smart kid up in the front of the class wasn't necessarily the one you wanted as captain of the football team, or to pal around with. You probably didn't even want him for class president."
Reed concurred. Liberal snobbishness, he said, is music to White House ears. Speaking of Bush's political guru, Reed said, "I'm sure there is nothing Karl Rove likes better than to have a bunch of intellectuals suggesting that George Bush is not one of them. After all, the Republicans are not targeting the Mensa vote in these elections." That would be the society of smart people.
The bottom line may be this: Conventional wisdom before Tuesday would have told most politicians that there was nothing smart about a president going into several dozen extremely close House, Senate and gubernatorial races to campaign with potential losers. A sophisticated politician would know better than to risk it. He could be blamed for bad outcomes.
George W. Bush did a dumb thing, in those terms. Dumb like a fox.