Jennifer Rubin’s assertion at the Washington Post that Republicans running for president ought to be “smart” is spot-on. (I’m biased — it reminds me a bit of a previous column I authored about “cosmopolitan conservatism.”)
There are, of course, arguments against her notion.
For one thing, the populist “everyman” shtick has consistently outperformed the “pointy-headed intellectual” brand electorally, leading some to logically conclude that it may not be smart politics to appear too smart. Second, while Rubin is clearly arguing for intellectual sophistication — not ideological moderation — anyone taking Rubin’s position will be predictably maligned as a “RINO.” (As Rubin notes in another post, Republicans too often tend to mistake “anti-elitism with anti-smarts“.)
Still, there are at least three very real reasons why Republicans ought to seriously consider Rubin’s advice:
1. The bully pulpit. Presidents are given a big stage and a big microphone. No surrogate can advance a message as effectively as a president. As such, it stands to reason that the person filling this important role also be effective at advancing a compelling message and vision.
2. The problems America faces demand fundamental, systemic change (such as entitlement reform, tax reform, etc.). Big changes cannot be made unilaterally; the public must “buy-in.” Margaret Thatcher was correct when she advised, “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” With that in mind, it is important to elect leaders who can “win the argument.” It is not enough to be philosophically correct — a successful modern leader must also be an eloquent and convincing communicator (and teacher).
3. Americans are becoming more sophisticated. Watch a video of Huey Long, the populist demagogue who once ruled Louisiana — and became so popular that he even threatened FDR’s control of the Democratic Party. Today, his appeal seems laughable. Long’s histrionics and populist act would never work in today’s world. As much as we decry the state of America’s modern educational system, our society is becoming more urbane and highly educated (we are also more skeptical — and less likely to fall for trite bromides). Additionally, technology has made it possible for voters to learn about the issues and “fact check” politicians in a manner that was unthinkable a generation ago. At some point, being anti-intellectual becomes a liability. At some point, this becomes a mathematical and demographic issue.
The good news, of course, is that up-and-coming conservatives like Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan embody the cosmopolitan conservative vision and eschew anti-intellectualism. (The bad news is, neither of them will be president in 2012.)
Regardless, Republicans should take Rubin’s advice seriously — not because it would make make her more comfortable admitting to be a Republican on the cocktail circuit (though it might) — but because it’s the only way conservatives can enact the kinds of fundamental changes necessary to win the 21st century.