What was particularly notable about the campaign that propelled George W. Bush into power in 2000 was that it was the first time I can recall a candidate who didn’t try to convince us to vote for him because he excelled, but rather because he did not. Al Gore undeniably had superior qualifications, experience and intelligence, but this did not phase the Republicans one bit. In fact, they said flatly not only that these weren’t assets of Gore’s, but rather, liabilities.
And it worked. I, like many Americans, bought into the notions of common sense being better than education, and of folksy charm being a better indicator of presidential success than intelligence. I detested Gore’s pomposity, and felt that Bush was someone I could relate to. He promised bipartisanship, non-interventionism and a practical hands-off approach to small government. I believed it all.
I was fooled, but not just because Bush did the exact opposite of everything he promised: I was wrong about the entire basis by which I favored Bush in the first place. I chose my candidate based on personal likeability rather than on more legitimate criteria: competence, experience, intelligence, discipline, communication ability and international legitimacy.
The 2008 Republican National Convention has shown in stark terms that the GOP is far from abandoning campaign strategies that put style over substance, personality over prerequisites, and appearance over achievement. Once again the same anti-intellectual, anti-education, anti-success mantra has been trotted out and used to great effect to manipulate the electorate into believing mediocrity is superior.
Let us begin with six simple words that encapsulate everything that is wrong with the American political process: “This election is not about issues”. That truly astounding comment came from none other than John McCain’s own campaign manager, Rick Davis.
Where is the outrage over the idea of a campaign not even trying to be substantive? What has happened to America where this barely even registers on the national conscience during a time when deep economic and social crises threaten to overwhelm us?
The answer is right in front of us. Where some Republicans (falsely and dishonestly) try to portray Barack Obama’s candidacy as being based on “white guilt”, a large part of their party’s entire electoral meme has become what I call smart guilt. The idea is to shame and ridicule people – both candidates and voters – who are smart, who care about education, who strive to improve themselves by learning, and who make decisions based on analyzing and thinking rather than impulsivity and emotion.
They tell me I shouldn’t vote for the smart man or woman who has good ideas, because that’s “elitist”. I should feel bad about my educational accomplishments and vote for the guy who barely scraped by in college, because more people scrape by than soar. I should throw my support to the candidate who engages in simplistic black-and-white thinking and petty sloganeering, because tens of millions are incapable of understanding anything more sophisticated than a jingle and a sound bite.
But is striving for mediocrity what made America great?
In John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin, we see the circle completed, the cynical “smart guilt” George W. Bush election strategy honed and refined to a frightening edge. I am told I shouldn’t favor a vice presidential candidate like Joe Biden, because he’s “boring”, and that his decades of experience and proven track record are unimportant. I should even discount his meeting the main job requirement of a vice president: advising the president, and being ready to step in if there’s an emergency.
In contrast, the GOP tells me that Governor Palin is a far better choice for higher office, because she eats mooseburgers, is a “pit-bull with lipstick” and her husband is a snowmobiling champion. She’s pretty and people like her, so she’s perfect for the most powerful offices of the land.
Apparently Sarah Palin should be my vice-president, and possibly president, because they say that she’s like most Americans. I should strive for a leader who is just like all of the followers.
And if I try to point out Sarah Palin’s dearth of international experience, the budget she unbalanced as mayor, the earmarks she fought for, the huge pork project she supported and then lied about, her abuse of power scandals, her “loyalty tests”, or even her comments that indicate that she doesn’t even know what the job is that she’s running for? According to the mediocrity-first crowd, these aren’t smart questions from a concerned citizen, they are “unfair attacks against small town Americans” – and that’s if I don’t get accused of “sexism”, first.
What is it really, though? It’s “smart guilt”.
And what of the man who chose her? There is only one truly “presidential” decision that candidates must make, and that is selecting running mates. This is the one chance that presidential hopefuls have to show their leadership, demonstrate decision-making ability, and illustrate how they measure and choose the people who will fill hundreds of key positions.
But when John McCain recklessly and foolishly chose an unproven lightweight with extremist views, I was supposed to treasure this as “independence”. When Senator McCain demonstrated a lack of intelligence and judgment by spending less time meeting with this woman before selecting her than I did in hiring a purchasing manager for a department of three, they told me this was actually good because it showed that he’s a “maverick”.
The truth is that “smart guilt” is what these strategists use to trick people into blinding themselves to the poor judgment and incompetent decision-making in a candidate who has spent months running on a basis of judgment and competence.
Ivy League schools have a reputation for taking only the smartest people, but grades are just a part of a much bigger equation; the sort of person you are matters. What you’ve done in your life, how you’ve helped others, how you’ve strived to improve yourself – these are all worked into the equation.
Like college admission, intelligence and education should be only part of how we choose a president, but they should be a part. Voters should never choose a candidate based solely on intelligence, but it is clear that the pendulum has swung much too far in the other direction: when Americans are encouraged to actively vote against education and intelligence, this is a very worrisome sign for our nation.
The presidency is the most important job in this country, and involves managing and integrating large amounts of complex information and making critical decisions. Intelligence and education matter in difficult jobs. This is not the place to choose the candidate “you’d rather have a beer with” over the one who has proven his ability to think on his feet, craft policy, make wise, carefully-considered decisions, and hire advisers wisely.
The president needs to relate to the common man and woman, but should not be a common man or woman. I like my neighbors, but no matter how nice they are, they are no more ready for the presidency than to be on our Olympic basketball team. And we need smart and educated people in the White House even more than we need gifted athletes in sports.
It is time for Americans to reject the notion that they should vote against the intelligence and education of qualified candidates. It is time for Americans to fight back against dishonest efforts to use the inferiority of mediocre candidates as arguments for their promotion, and attempts to castigate the best and brightest because of their achievements.
It is time for “smart guilt” to go.