Too Smart By Half
The conservative movement is blessed with some really, really excellent thinkers. Peggy Noonan is one; Kathleen Parker is another. Christopher Buckley and David Brooks, while not strictly conservative, are also smart and insightful writers. All these pundits are, perceptive, discerning, and smart, and can look beyond the obvious when analyzing an issue.
But it’s possible to be too smart by half; and it’s easy to overanalyze. And I think that some conservative thinkers are guilty of these sins. It’s tempting, when writing about some political controversy, to buck the prevailing trends and offer something no one has thought of, and it’s often attractive to go against the groupthink found in any movement. But Parker, Buckley, and the rest have gone too far—they’ve moved from edgy and challenging to merely stupid.
There seem to be two main ideas among the anti-McCain conservatives: a) that McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate shows his contempt for intelligence and competence, and b) that Barack Obama’s temperament is remarkable enough to trump ideological differences and represents a reason to vote for him over McCain. Both of these concepts are silly.
I think that it is nearly indisputable that Sarah Palin isn’t ready to be Vice President, and isn’t nearly ready for the presidency should anything happen to McCain. But neither is Obama. Obama is a smart man, and like Palin, could in time be a strong president (at least from a Democrat point of view). But he’s not ready—he has served in the Senate for less than four years, and hasn’t really done anything. He has never had to respond to anything more important than a drop in the polls.
Palin’s philosophical vision is hazy. So is Obama’s. Obama’s beliefs are pretty well-known—and they are nothing more than your typical Democrat ideals: balanced budget, more spending on welfare programs, less war, and the rest of the Democrat agenda. Obama displays no original vision, no brilliant ideas—his plans could have come out of the Official Democrat Incoming Senator Handbook, and probably did.
If McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin represents a lapse in judgment, then considering voting for Obama does as well. You can’t have it both ways—either both Palin and Obama are qualified, or they both aren’t.
Reason number two for Obama: Obama’s temperament is so adjusted and nuanced that it obscures any ideological weaknesses and becomes a real reason to vote Obama. A few problems there. First, Obama’s temperament may be good—but it’s not that good. Christopher Buckley seems to read judgment between the lines in Obama twin autobiographies. His books are interesting and revealing, but they are hardly literary classics. If Obama loses, his autobiographies will be on the bargain shelves pretty quickly, and will be completely forgotten a year from then. Anyhow, writing ability doesn’t necessarily translate into leadership ability—Ulysses S. Grant was a dreadful president, but wrote a very good autobiography.
And this idea ignores a more important point—when it comes to the presidency, competence might be a bit more important than temperament.
And there really isn’t any reason to think that Barack Obama is especially competent. He’s never had to make a tough decision, he’s never led a Senate fight, he’s never really even pushed any particularly unpopular positions. Some point to his presidential campaign as proof of his aptitude. But his campaign isn’t the smoking gun these people think it is—he beat Hillary Clinton, but she started with some sky-high negatives, and he should have won the nomination much earlier. His campaign has been run competently, but not brilliantly, and if Obama wants to cite a political campaign as evidence of his abilities, he had better run it brilliantly.
Noonan, Parker, Buckley, and the rest decry anti-intellectualism, and justifiably so. But just because one is smart (and for the record, any of the people I’ve cited is far more knowledgeable and insightful than I am—in fact, I feel presumptuous just saying that) doesn’t mean that one is invulnerable to indefensible ideas.
Peggy Noonan wrote a column praising Palin’s selection, then got caught bashing it on an open mike. Kathleen Parker suggested that Sarah Palin remove herself from the ticket in order to help McCain (which would hav) set up an Eagleton scenario in which McCain’s judgment would be irrevocably tarnished).
Neither of these things was a good idea, and I think that both writers will come to regret them. (In fact, I think Noonan already does). Too many people under analyze issues—but overanalyzing them to come to a ridiculous conclusion is just as bad.