My post from earlier today criticizing Republican presidential candidates for playing to the lowest common denominator certainly is generating some heated discussion. Many liberals have commented that Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) personify know-nothing-ism, which they claim applies to the entire GOP. Many conservatives have written in to urge Republicans to be the smart ones. (My personal favorite comment: “It shows how far right these people are when they think Jennifer Rubin is liberal.”)
In my phone interview with Rick Santorum today, he didn’t directly mention Perry or Bachmann, but his meaning was clear. He told me, “Using self-deprecating humor is fine. Humility is a virtue. But you are running for the presidency of the United States and people have to respect you.”
I received an email from a longtime conservative activist who I think aptly summed up the concern:
When I was in high school and college we conservatives were badly outnumbered but prided ourselves on being better informed than the lefties. Our heroes were the Buckleys and we read Russell Kirk, [Ludwig] von Mises, etc.
When I first got into electoral politics we all read [Arthur] Laffer, [Jude] Wanniski, Jean Baptiste Say, and everyone else who could help us win economic arguments. Same thing in foreign policy and social (properly defined) policy. This phony reverse elitism won’t work. People don’t like snobs but they like stupid even less.
Put differently, candidates who already raise concerns about intellectual heft and electability shouldn’t make things worse. It is not only what they do say (e.g. “Gardasil causes mental retardation”) but what they don’t that matters. If candidates present compelling and detailed policy arguments, no one would begrudge them a joke here and there. But when the policy cupboard is bare, it’s best not to highlight a liability.
Conservatives can and should be anti-elitist to their heart’s content in attacking supercilious liberals who don’t trust average Americans to run their own lives and perpetuate silly and dangerous ideas (e.g. poverty causes crime, the U.S. is the source of much of the world’s ills). But they win the important debates — and elections — by convincing Americans that their ideas are better and their candidates understand how the world works.