GOP Rejects Know-Nothings, Opts For Candidates Who Understand Public Policy

By embracing Gingrich and Romney, Republicans are showing a desire for substance, says Peter Beinart.

It’s not easy for us liberals to find nice things to say about the GOP presidential field. But here goes: Perhaps 2011 will go down as the year when Republicans finally decided that having a president who knows something about public policy might not be such a bad thing after all.

Since at least the 1920s, the GOP has been, overall, the less intellectual of the two parties. That’s not surprising given that conservatives—given their greater deference to the way things are—are more suspicious than liberals of big ideas aimed at reshaping society. There certainly have been influential conservative intellectuals. But from William F. Buckley to Irving Kristol, they’ve spent much of their time railing against the intellectual class and insisting that we’d all be better off if we listened to the businessmen, policemen and ministers who understand society as it is, not as some professor draws it up on a blackboard.

Starting in the 1960s, anti-intellectualism also proved effective at luring working-class whites—who previously had aligned with the Democrats on class lines—into the GOP. From Spiro Agnew’s declaration that “an intellectual is a man who doesn’t know how to park a bike” to George H.W. Bush’s attacks on Michael Dukakis for attending Harvard and Bill Clinton for attending Oxford, Republicans again and again used anti-intellectualism to mobilize working-class resentment against liberal cultural elites rather than conservative economic ones.

Until this fall, GOP anti-intellectualism not only seemed alive and well. It seemed to be going wild. George W. Bush—who loved to joke about being a C student—had been more blatantly anti-intellectual than Ronald Reagan. Sarah Palin was even more blatant than Bush. And when Palin decided not to run for president, conservatives rallied around Michele Bachmann (who explained that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States”), Herman Cain (“when they ask me ‘who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan’ I’m going to say, you know, I don’t know”) and Rick Perry (enough said).

But surprisingly, as 2011 comes to a close, it is Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich—who along with Jon Huntsman are probably the most cerebral candidates in the field—who are battling for the lead. Part of this, of course, is coincidence. As a member of the House since 2007, Bachmann would have had a gravitas problem even if she had been better versed on public policy. Cain turned out to have trouble remembering things more damaging than the names of Central Asian leaders. For Perry, however—who pundits gave a much better chance of winning the nomination than either Bachmann or Cain—it really has been lack of policy knowledge (or at least policy recall) that has shattered his candidacy. That’s remarkable. In recent decades, the key qualifications for winning a Republican primary have been: 1) being very conservative, 2) being well-funded, and 3) having run before. If there’s been another major contender for the Republican nomination in recent years whose candidacy has collapsed because of his public-policy ignorance, I can’t think who it is.

What’s changed? Partly, it’s the endless string of debates, which have made it painfully clear which candidates can string together a coherent sentence. In 2000, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the race for the Republican presidential nomination featured three debates, one of which George W. Bush skipped. This cycle, by contrast, has already featured 11. If George W. Bush had taken part in 11 debates, he might have had a Rick Perry moment too.

But even more fundamentally, the person who has made Republican anti-intellectualism uncool is Barack Obama. Republicans believe that Obama’s record makes him vulnerable. But they remember how he eviscerated John McCain in the 2008 debates, and are eager—even desperate—for someone who can match him on stage. What makes Obama formidable is not only his grasp of public policy, but his comfort in his own skin. It’s unlikely that a Republican could use Obama’s policy knowledge to make him look like a self-important know-it-all. To win a debate with Obama, Bush-style folksiness won’t be enough. The Republican candidate will have to be substantive, which is part of the reason Romney has remained the frontrunner all year and that Gingrich has now joined him in the top tier.

If there’s a candidate at risk of coming across as a self-important know-it-all, in fact, it’s not Obama, but Gingrich, a man whose intellectual abilities—however superior to Perry’s—still fall far short of his intellectual pretensions. Americans will tolerate braininess in their politicians, if they wear it lightly. Gingrich doesn’t wear anything lightly. I’m glad that Republicans suddenly find wonkery cool, but in their admirable rejection of the Bush/Palin/Perry model, they should take care that they don’t instead nominate Al Gore.