Folks in the media often judge the intellect of candidates using one crucial question: Do you agree with me?
Now, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, leading Republican presidential candidate, readily admits that he's not a scholarly type. But if your spider senses, like mine, are tingling, it probably has more to do with Perry's slippery politics than it does with his aversion to curling up with a dog-eared copy of "The Wealth of Nations."
In a recent Politico piece (one that mistakes wonkery for overall intelligence), readers are asked, Is Rick Perry dumb? "He is not an ideas man," explains Politico. He "hasn't spent his political career marking up the latest Cato or Heritage white papers or reading policy-heavy books late into the night. Advisers and colleagues have informed much of his thinking over the years."
Listen, I love reading a Cato white paper as much as the next guy, but that doesn't make me smart; it makes me tragically boring. No doubt Barack Obama picked up his sad conviction in redistributionist economics perusing stacks of white papers -- highlight marker within reach -- but his presidency was won on crude progressive populism anchored in emotion, not reason. Policy ideas had little to do with Obama's election victory, though they have almost everything to do with his failures as president.
I've not seen or heard enough of Perry to form any opinion on his intellect -- and if he instituted policies that I agreed with, I, like most Americans, wouldn't give one whit what his IQ was, but politicians, by their nature, are not intellectually curious, save their ability to twist their opponent's beliefs for political gain. Elections, after all, are about pandering, not thinking.
That doesn't make them "dumb." What makes a person dumb is repeating mistakes when all the evidence tells him to stop for his own good. We will witness this human shortcoming when the president rolls out his new "stimulus" package. Some ideas, goes Orwell's saying, are so dumb only intellectuals can believe them.
On the other hand, reflexive anti-intellectualism (a misguided belief on the right that was spurred by having to share the word "intellectual" with Cornel West) is also destructive. If you're going to propose more than hope in 2012 -- say, some policy -- you have to be prepared with scholarly backup.
If a candidate asserts that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and a "monstrous lie," I may agree (because I read Cato white papers!), but he'd better have some innovative ideas to offer voters instead -- ideas that can pithily and reassuringly convince baby boomers they won't be cracking open dog food canisters to survive in a few years. Decades of reliance on flawed New Deal policies doesn't just end. They need to be reformed or replaced -- unlikely as that is to happen.
When a candidate claims that Medicare is another "fraudulent" system "designed to take in a lot of money at the front and pay out none in the end," he sure is right, but he'd better be able to deftly handle policy questions and transcend talking points -- which it seems to me is all Perry has offered so far.
This requires the only form of intelligence that matters in politics: the ability to synthesize complex ideas and sell them to us.