The headline on Democratic strategist Paul Begala's recent Newsweek essay dodged subtlety: "The Stupid Party."
"Republicans used to admire intelligence. But now they're dumbing themselves down," was the subhead.
Democrats couldn't agree more. And quietly, many Republicans share the sentiment. They just can't seem to stop themselves.
Republicans aren't really stupid, of course, and Begala acknowledges this. But, as he also pointed out, the conservative brain trust once led by William F. Buckley has been supplanted by talk radio hosts who love to quote Buckley (and boast of his friendship), but who do not share the man's pedigree or his nimble mind. Moreover, where Buckley tried to rid the GOP of fringe elements, notably the John Birch Society, today's conservatives have let them back in. The 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference was co-sponsored by the Birchers.
Meanwhile, the big tent fashioned by Ronald Reagan has become bilious with the hot air of religious fervor. No one was more devout than the very-Catholic Buckley, but you didn't see him convening revivals in the public square. Nor is it likely he would he have embraced fundamentalist views that increasingly have forced the party into a corner where science and religion can't coexist.
Scientific skepticism, the engine that propels intellectual inquiry, has morphed into skepticism of science fueled by religious certitude. In this strange world, it is heresy to express concern about, for example, climate change — or even to suggest that human behavior may be a contributing factor. Jon Huntsman committed blasphemy when he told ABC's Jake Tapper that he trusts scientists on global warming.
What Huntsman next said, though refreshing and true, ensured that his poll numbers would remain in the basement: "When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Sciences has said about what is causing climate change and man's contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science and, therefore, in a losing position."
Of course, plenty of Republicans agree with this appraisal, including other presidential candidates. They understand that the challenge is to figure out to what extent humans contribute and what humans can reasonably do without bankrupting the planet.
Nevertheless, the Republican base requires that candidates tack away from science toward the theistic position — only God controls climate. More to the point, Rush Limbaugh says that climate change is a hoax and so it must be. Huntsman may as well be a Democrat.
Call it the Palinization of the GOP in which the least informed earns the loudest applause. Latest to this spectacle is Herman Cain, who has figured out how to turn his liabilities into assets. After fumbling for an answer to a simple question during an editorial board meeting about his position on Libya, a lead news item since August, Cain blamed — who else? — the media.
The problem wasn't that he had no idea. The problem, he said, was that he likes to think before he speaks.
"Who knows every detail of every country on the planet?" he asked a crowd in Nashua, N.H., a few days later. "The people that get on the Cain train, they don't get off because of that crap."
It's safe to say that nobody knows every detail of every country, but Libya isn't just any country and the U.S. did not play a minor role in helping Libyans liberate themselves from the 40-year tyranny of Moammar Gaddafi. But Cain is banking on the hope that GOP contempt for smarty-pants gotcha journalists will outweigh concerns that he may be out of his league.
He may be right. Despite his difficulties, Cain is still polling in the top tier, just behind Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Even so, there are signs that the GOP is recognizing its weaknesses and is ready to play smarter. To wit: The sudden surge of Gingrich, who, whatever his flaws and despite the weight of his considerable baggage, is no intellectual slouch. Whether he can pull off a victory in Iowa remains to be seen, but a populist professor — a bombastic smarty-pants Republicans can call their own — may be just the ticket.
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