Republicans have sometimes mistaken anti-elitism with anti-smarts. Put differently, Republicans should not have contempt for the voters or for ideas, lest they be judged unworthy of serving in office. It’s one thing to heap scorn on liberal elites who parrot unsupportable leftist dogma or who show contempt for ordinary Americans’ values; it’s quite another to celebrate ignorance. We’ve had two rather appalling examples in 24 hours, which I would suggest, are perfect examples of what conservatives should reject.
After the Florida debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) on Fox passed on a comment from someone she purportedly spoke to after the debate who claimed that the HPV vaccine that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had attempted to make mandatory caused mental retardation. This is complete nonsense. Yuval Levin, a pro-life conservative thinker of the first order who helped craft President George W. Bush’s stem-cell policy, wrote this:
There is no evidence to support any link between this (or any) vaccine and mental retardation. None. Baseless assertions to the contrary about various vaccines have for years been piling needless guilt upon the parents of children with autism and other disorders, and driving other parents away from vaccinating their children against diseases that could do them great harm. A presidential candidate should not be engaging in such harmful nonsense.
The rashness of Perry’s move to mandate the vaccine, and the at times excessive zeal of Merck’s campaign to see it mandated, have surely contributed to this frenzy. Some of us even saw it coming several years ago. But none of that excuses Bachmann’s reckless conspiracy mongering.
Bachmann was not exercising skepticism about a scientific theory. She wasn’t chiding cultural elitists who look down on ordinary Americans. She was spouting anti-scientific gibberish. It was good to see that strong conservative voices denounced this behavior.
Then today, Texas Gov. Rick Perry went to Liberty University. It was, at least in part, a celebration of ignorance. The Post’s reporter at the scene Phil Rucker tweeted some of the remarks. Jon Ward at Huffington Post likewise recorded some comments. Things started off on a poor note with Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. praising Perry’s seccessionist remarks as “gutsy.” Are we to believe now that Perry was serious about secession? Then Perry, apparently deciding to make ads for the Obama campaign, came out with a series of “See how dumb I am?” one-liners. He observed that he needed to pull out a dictionary to see what “convocation” meant. The next knee-slapper: He didn’t have the grades to be a vet, so he became a pilot. And then the real howler: He was in the top 10 in a high school class of 13.
Yes, he was trying to be self-deprecating, but it’s disturbing to see that he thinks being a rotten student and a know-nothing gives one street cred in the GOP. Is it so important to defy the MSM by flaunting affection for anti-intellectualism? Just imagine if Sarah Palin had said all that — the conservative cheerleaders who gave up on her (but are still rooting for Perry) would roll their eyes in disgust.
Moreover, what Perry is doing here is telling moderate Republicans and those voters genuinely concerned about his electability to buzz off. He doesn’t need them, and he doesn’t intend to make it easy for them to vote for him. He’s telling them he is happily impervious to mainstream sensibilities. It’s the sort of thing that a Texas pol, not a presidential candidate, would do.
Now before every Perry backer pulls out a self-deprecating comment that George W. Bush made about his syntax or that Ronald Reagan made about his grades, they should stop and think. Does Perry have a gravitas problem? Has he counteracted it with any serious policy proposals? Has he shown himself to be knowledgeable and mature in the debates? Nope. He’s just reveling in the scorn because he has mistaken mainstream (and some conservative) media criticism for confirmation that he really is doing something right. But what if, for example, a really smart Republican with a great track record, lots of policy ideas and the ability to counteract the stereotype of Republicans ran? Oh, maybe there already is one or two in the race. Maybe there could be more, and perhaps conservatives would be relieved not to have to make excuses for candidates who think ignorance is virtue and intelligence is a vice.
UPDATE Rick Santorum and others chime in in my follow-up post on this issue.