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Kathleen Parker: Smart vs. 'dumb' politics

By Kathleen Parker

NEW YORK — Are Republicans stupid? This seems to be the question du jour. Chris Matthews entertained this idea with guests recently, pointing to several Republican presidential candidates as evidence. How else to explain why so many in the GOP seem proud of their “know-nothingness,” as Matthews put it?
As an example, he showed a clip of Texas Gov. Rick Perry bragging to an audience of students that he was in the top 10 in his graduating class of … dumdeedumdeedumdeedum … 13! Chortle, chortle. Or rather, yahoo!
We are reminded of George W. Bush making similar fun of himself by noting in a commencement speech that anyone can grow up to be president. Even a solid C student such as himself.
This sort of reverse braggadocio is mysterious to Democrats who pride themselves these days on being members of the “smart” party. Indeed, the Ivies do seem to be mass-producing Democrats these days, including the last two Democratic presidents. And, alas, even the most recent Republican president, though he seems not to have taken it, or himself, quite so seriously.
There are, of course, lots of ways to be smart and lots of ways to be dumb. We often talk about book smarts and street smarts, as though the two are mutually exclusive. We know from experience that brilliant book people can be nincompoops when it comes to common sense, while people lacking formal education can be brilliant problem-solvers.
We know these things, yet we seem to have fallen in love with the notion that only book smarts matter when it comes to the nation’s problems. At least Democrats have. Republicans, despite having a few brainiacs in their midst, have taken the opposite approach, emphasizing instead the value of being just regular folk. In GOP circles, being an ordinary American is viewed as superior to being one of those egg-headed elitists.
GOP pop quiz: With whom would you rather roll your dice — a Harvard lawyer who wants government to bankroll jobs through higher taxes? Or a Texas A&M grad/Air Force pilot who has successfully run one of the largest states in the country?
Distilled, this is really a brains-vs.-gut question — erudite theorist vs. plain-spoken doer — not that the two need be mutually exclusive. Would it be too much to ask that a well-read mind come packaged in a human vessel that also has had some experience in the trenches of ordinary life?
It is noteworthy that Democrats tend to think that government can solve most problems, while Republicans prefer the thought that individuals unencumbered by meddlesome government do the better job. Extrapolating, then, “smart” folks would rather rely on bureaucrats, while “stupid” people prefer to rely on themselves. Again, might some combination of the two — smart government that incentivizes self-reliance — work best of all?
Republicans have earned some of the ridicule aimed their way. Many are willing to dumb themselves down to win the support of the party’s base, preferring to make fun of evolution and global warming rather than take the harder route of explaining, for example, that a “theory” when applied to evolution has a specific scientific meaning. It isn’t just some random idea cooked up in a frat house.
It is far easier to say what is pleasing to the ear than what is true. Even so, anyone who thinks Republicans are stupid is missing the point. What those dummies Bush and Perry have in common, other than having been Texas governors, pilots and cheerleaders (what is it with Texas?), is that they’re not stupid at all.
This doesn’t mean they’re right about everything or even most things. But they’re smart enough to know that most people in this country didn’t go to Ivy League colleges — or any college for that matter. Most haven’t led privileged lives of any sort, but nonetheless have unspoiled hearts and are willing to help any who would help themselves.
This is the essence of the so-called ordinary American. Self-reliant, individualistic, entrepreneurial, neighborly and strong. These people come in both Republican and Democratic flavors, though we’ve somehow lost sight of that in these hyper-partisan, sound-bite times.
Until someone emerges to remind Americans of who they are in a way that neither insults their intelligence nor condescends to their less-fortunate circumstances, smart money goes to the “stupid” politicians, who are dumb as foxes and happy as clams when their opponents misunderestimate them.
• • •
Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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