The tragedy of Mitt Romney: a smart man trying to fit in to the party that loves stupid.

Why is there no Republican who can explain policy as well as Bill Clinton does? Jonathan Bernstein knows the answer: if there were, Republicans wouldn’t want to hear it. And this explains a lot about Romney.

I watched Bill Clinton’s speech last night with my wife, an immigrant who didn’t grow up following American politics. As someone who knows much more about policy than I do, she loved the speech and said, “if only more politicians would explain policy like that!” I doubt many students of American politics would contest my reply: “There’s only one American politician who can explain policy like that.” In particular, the Republicans have nobody who’s even close.

Jonathan Bernstein nails the reasons this is no accident. Read the whole thing, but here’s the kernel:

Granted, political talent could show up for either party. But a Republican these days couldn’t do what Clinton did tonight, because Republican gatekeepers and, probably, Republican audiences don’t want that kind of thing.

It’s not that there are no solid, factual, arguments for the policies Republicans prefer. There certainly are! But a politician who tried to stick to those would be competing with the Glenn Becks of the party, and the Rush Limbaughs, and the Newt Gingriches, and the “facts” that those party leaders constantly trot out. Democrats, to be sure, have to compete with some fringe voices who have a dubious grasp of facts and policy, but for whatever reason those voices are kept on the fringe. That’s just not the case for Republicans.

It’s not always been that way. But that’s how it is now.

And so Paul Ryan gets a reputation as a substantive Republican…while repeating the most nutty myths about budgets and health care reform (yes, a David Obey would or a Henry Waxman will give a very partisan interpretation of contested facts; how often do they just make stuff up?). And so Republicans celebrate the policy ignorance of a Herman Cain or a Sarah Palin. And so Republicans don’t even bother forcing George W. Bush to show he knows anything about policy or government before they nominate him; to the contrary, they argue that he’s a better president because he’s not bogged down by all of that stuff and can better govern from his instincts.

You’re not going to get a Bill Clinton if your party gives no incentives at all for a smart youngster to try to become that sort of politician. Truth is, a Republican who really knew policy well enough to make the arguments Clinton made tonight would have to hide it.

One of Jonathan’s commenters (“swain”) notes that Romney illustrates the thesis perfectly. I’d expand on that.

Romney is very intelligent. And while Harvard Business School’s one-page-case method of alleged education seems designed to unfit people for serious reflection and a sense of context, it shouldn’t prevent Romney from grasping short strings of policy, provided they fit on a PowerPoint slide. Yet Romney pretends to believe in impossible budgets, and says that global warming is real, sort of, but that government policy should go forward as if we didn’t know whether it were real or not.

On one level, anybody who’s tried to be both smart and popular has got to feel for this guy. While there’s no easy way to do it, Romney’s method—pretending to be stupider than you are—must surely be the easiest. (That’s why it’s the prevalent strategy at many a high school; the other common strategy, class clown, works less well in politics, Al Franken notwithstanding.) Benjamin Franklin’s cultivated ability to make his genius go down easier via a homespun morality that he didn’t believe in and a calculated extroversion that he never found natural stands as a model of sorts, but an ethically complex one. (Judith Shklar’s defense of hypocrisy, referring to Franklin’s case, isn’t to everyone’s taste.) Bill Clinton’s constant practice, over years and decades, at making genuinely difficult policy ideas accessible via anecdotes, metaphors, and short sentences represents a very different model, and in democratic terms probably a more honorable one.

But Bernstein’s point remains. Clinton may be in a class by himself. But his virtue was aided by circumstance: he’s in the only American party that appreciates that class. On the other hand, there’s also choice involved. If making smart arguments were important to Romney, he wouldn’t have thrown his political ambitions into the party that roars for stupidity.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

13 thoughts on “The tragedy of Mitt Romney: a smart man trying to fit in to the party that loves stupid.”

  1. …more precisely, I think: the party that loves ignorance, dissembles courage, and admires cunning

  2. Shorter Sabl — the parties get what they reward

    Krugman had a quip about this a while ago — the Republican primary process selects for Fools and/or Frauds. Romney is the least foolish Fraud, while Gingrich is both, and Bachman was a Fool.

  3. but even a smart guy playing stupid would not *have* to lie as much, or switch his stories as much, as Romney does, surely.

  4. Jon Huntsman was head-and-shoulders above all of his competitors. That he never got a shot is a real indictment against the GOP primary electorate.

  5. I used to say something similar about Bob Dole. He could have run as the Republican LBJ — consummate insider able the get shit done. But his party wanted outsiders tilting at windmills. So he got beat by school uniforms and the like.

  6. Mitt’s plenty smart, no doubt about it. Would he care about all the people? Maybe, but so far I’m not buying it when he tries to talk like it.

  7. I can’t accept the premise that Mitt Romney is smart and not stupid. Wasn’t that the whole idea behind Forrest Gump? Stupid is as stupid does? If this is true why then do we keep calling Romney smart? What else can “By their works ye shall know them” possibly mean?

  8. “It’s not that there are no solid, factual, arguments for the policies Republicans prefer. There certainly are!”

    Objection: assumes facts not in evidence.

  9. Mitt Romney is smart? From what I’ve seen of his campaign, he couldn’t manage a three-year-old’s birthday party.

  10. From a post on this blog, it was noted that during his time as Governor when he passed Romneycare, he was persuaded to push for a policy add-on (I can’t remember the details) namely because he realized that it would cover more people and cost the same as if it weren’t added. THAT version of Romney is exactly the version that his handlers are trying desperately to hide from his base. Why? I’m guessing it’s because the GOP base consists of people who are susceptible to smarter people preying on them. The guy who shoots from the hip, well if there’s collateral damage, oh well. But the smart guy? He puts the target on your back without you knowing it.

    And agreed, Clinton did in 40 minutes, what the Administration has not been able to do in 3.5 years. The better question is: Why can’t the Administration explain policy? The many times in which the Admin needed others to come to their rescue and explain stuff is rather embarrassing. I mean, how do you get Death Panel’d? Or how do you indulge the “state’s rights” crowd and have it count against you as “gutting Welfare Reform?” It took Clinton about 4 minutes to explain that little twist.

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