John Ziegler's speech at CPAC illustrates perfectly the end result of the unrestrained anti-intellectualism that has infected and severely damaged the Republican party. Princeton economics professor and recent Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman wrote about how the GOP had become the "party of know-nothings" last year in his New York Times column. Using then-President Bush as an example of the right's explicit rejection of intellectualism, he quoted an op-ed written by Regan speech writer Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal.
"He's not an intellectual", Noonan wrote in 2004, "intellectuals start all the trouble in the world."
Such trite remarks are hardly worth addressing, other than to note that conservative anti-intellectualism is largely responsible for many unnecessary mistakes committed by Senator John McCain's presidential campaign, including what was arguably the biggest mistake the man has ever made politically.
Ziegler, like many on the far right, believe that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was a strong, intelligent woman that was true to conservative ideology -- even more so than her running mate and then President of the United States, George W. Bush -- that was unfairly attacked and torn down by the media.
Rather than admit the possibility that Palin's questionable intellect was her primary failure and that for perhaps the first time in the last eight to ten years, the media actually did its job by engaging politicians from an adversarial posture rather than sucking up to them in exchange for increased access -- a situation perhaps made worse by the McCain campaign's decision to hide Palin from the media -- Ziegler and the rest of Palin's fan club have moved beyond blaming the media and begun a crusade to punish and exorcise their fellow conservatives who dared to criticize the Alaska Governor.
..lot of us end up selling out to the other side for a guest spot on Meet The Press or Larry King Live because they know that a conservative saying something bad about another conservative is automatically going to be newsworthy and get them a higher profile. Well, those people ought to be ostracized and punished.
Unfortunately for Ziegler and non-moderate conservatives -- the 25-30% of the Republican base that absolutely loved Palin every bit as much as they still thought President Bush was doing a bang up when he left office -- purging their party of the few people left who are capable of seeing internal problems for what they are is only going to worsen electoral losses and delay their recovery. GOP loses in 2008 created a strong buffer that can and will keep Democrats in power for years to come, even if the tide begins to turn against them.
Most seats that went from red to blue in 2006 and 2008 were in districts that replaced a moderate Republican with a moderate Democrat, and in states that were already blue but were represented by unusually conservative Republicans. Or, if you will, at least as far as the Senate tends to be concerned, there was a lot of buyers remorse. Before Republicans can regain the majority, they'll have to chip away at the buffer wins in 2008, and the current GOP policy of being even more conservative than Bush (one of the most conservative and extremist Republicans in decades) will not play well in districts that clearly prefer moderate leaders.
Ziegler is blind to the real problem that Governor Palin presented their party and is currently pursuing an agenda of running those who did understand the problem out of the party. That problem chiefly had to do with the kind of anti-intellectualism that Paul Krugman described.
By turning the conservative base against intellectualism as a way to falsely differentiate conservatives and liberals -- I say falsely because there are plenty of very intelligent conservatives and liberals both in Congress, and at large -- Republicans have largely and unknowingly been training their base to accept substandard candidates for public office. They have in essence created the very problem they tried to manufacture as a matter of PR and election politicking.
Conservatives became so enamored with so-called "everyday" and average joe Americans that they became as blinded as John Ziegler to the great disadvantage they'll suffer to liberal Democratic candidates that are not everyday and average, but in fact are well educated, extremely intelligent, and motivated to generate new ideas to fix the persistent problems that plague this country and the world at large.
A person like Governor Palin should never have been matched against Joe Biden or Barack Obama. While core conservatives deluded themselves into believing that the only meaningful metric in 2008 was going to be experience, moderate voters had given up on Republican anti-intellectualism and fallen in love again with smart and inspirational newcomers who were telling anyone that would listen that there are no problems that a smart person can't solve if they put their mind to it -- experience be damned.
The GOP base bought into the anti-intellectualism at precisely the time that America's economic and foreign policy problems had become so complex that such rhetoric was met with blank stares.
Americans didn't care about shadowy associations and socialism, it was about who best understood what caused the recession and who could save their jobs, their homes, and get the country back on track in the midst of a complex, multifaceted national crisis.
On one side was a rural state Governor that said all the things that conservatives wanted to hear, but by all appearances had never pursued an interest in national politics her entire life. She knew nothing about the economy, foreign policy, and flubbed extremely easy to answer questions about what newspapers she read. When asked to explain the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war which she claimed to support, Gov. Palin didn't have an answer.
She just didn't understand and never really cared to, either.
Palin was the quintessential anti-intellectual who played up her "average joe" home life and told us repeatedly that being well intentioned was enough.
But there were problems with Palin even more fundamental than her lightweight interest in national governance. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer actually did Democrats a favor by pointing out the rank hypocrisy in what I've already described as McCain's failed strategy of championing experience over substance, only to pick one of the least experienced Republican governors in the nation as his running mate.
Obama was sagging because of missteps that reflected the fundamental weakness of his candidacy. Which suggested McCain's strategy: Make this a referendum on Obama, surely the least experienced, least qualified, least prepared presidential nominee in living memory.
Palin fatally undermines this entire line of attack. This is through no fault of her own. It is simply a function of her rookie status. The vice president's only constitutional duty of any significance is to become president at a moment's notice. Palin is not ready.
Democrats largely avoided even addressing this contradiction -- insomuch as is possible in a party that lives to shoot itself in the foot -- knowing that conservatives would do the job for them. Not only would it carry more weight coming from Republicans, it would set up a vicious civil war inside the Republican party down the road, one which is now manifesting itself in the John Ziegler's, Rush Limbaugh's, and Michale Steele's of the world.
Krauthammer himself admitted that the hope that intellectualism breeds was critical if Obama wanted to overcome his lack of practical experience.
The sheer elegance, intelligence and power of his public presence have muted the uneasy feeling about his unreadiness. Palin does not reach Obama's mesmeric level. Her appeal is far more earthy, workmanlike and direct. Yet she managed to banish a week's worth of unfriendly media scrutiny and self-inflicted personal liabilities with a single triumphant speech.
Of course this was before the media was actually allowed to talk to Palin without having John McCain at her side, ready to take control of the interview the instant she got in over her head, which it turns out lasted from the RNC convention until election day.
Conservative columnist George Will who was recently caught lying about scientific data supporting man-made global warming, said of Palin, she's "not qualified to be President" after her painful series of interviews with CBS' Katie Couric. Though he blamed the failure on Couric and the media for being too harsh -- I guess expecting an answer to "what newspapers do you read" is too harsh for a person who wants the potential responsibility of leading the country immediately after the President dies -- Will and other conservative writers had no problem seeing the many problems with Sarah Palin.
Kathleen Parker, writing for The National Review, actually had to disclaim some of her remarks before criticizing Palin, knowing full well the cheap and dishonest attacks a person suffers for pointing out the Governor's obvious flaws. She began a piece in late September of last year with this preface: "To express reservations about her qualifications to be vice president — and possibly president — is to risk being labeled anti-woman."
Parker later wrote that while "it was fun while it lasted", Palin's interviews with Couric and several other Republican-friendly TV personalities on Fox News showed "an attractive, earnest, confident candidate who is clearly out of her league."
Palin isn't the result of sloppy vetting or a vicious, unfair media. She was the preicsely the result of the back stage manipulations of McCain's campaign by party insiders that bought their own anti-intellectualism product. Palin wasn't going to help McCain win over Clinton's female voters, and everybody implicity understood this, because Palin's policies were strongly anti-woman by nature of them being conservative, Republican policies. She opposed pay equality legislation for women and was fervently anti-choice -- two issues that are very important to female voters regardless of party.
I think that most people understood that her lack of experience was going to actually hurt the ticket, as Krauthammer intimated, it took away one of the few attack vectors against Obama.
There was literally nothing left to cling to other than anti-intellectualism. She personified it. "I'm smart enough to be President", she'd tell the crowd, "but dang it, I'm not any smarter than you are so you can trust me to do my best!"
The message that the President of the United States might only be as smart as you and I are is not a terribly comforting thought.
From the beginning when Republicans turned intelligence into a character flaw to set "average American" conservatives apart from elitist liberals, they set in motion the inevitable day when the voters and party insiders would buy into it so hard that the biggest and brightest rising stars in the party were practically morons.
That day came on November 11th, 2008.
May intelligent conservationism rest in peace.
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