The Harperization of the Republican presidential field

Voters eventually turned to candidates with legislative experience–or at least an MD

In Iowa, the sideshow carneys had a bad night. This continues a robust losing streak for candidates who seemed to believe that a mavericky attitude could substitute for book larnin’ and legislative experience in their quest for the presidency. Herman Cain and Sarah Palin didn’t even make it this far; Michele Bachmann is now toast; Rick Perry will not be in it much longer.

The survivors are a former moderate Massachussetts governor; a former two-term Senator and two-term Representative who actually did some legislating while he was in the legislative branch; a 20-year Representative and former House Speaker who’s written or co-written 23 books, some memorable; and Ron Paul, who’s an eccentric or worse but who got his MD at Duke University and who captures votes in chronically under-served corners of American conservatism, like foreign-policy isolationism.

I make no great claims for Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Paul. It’s a very conservative field, well to the right of the party’s 1996, 2000 and 2008 nominees. But my point is, they’re not blithering idiots, and yet in recent months they spent a lot of time trailing candidates who were. The Iowa caucus-goers, pursuing a rickety and outmoded process in the dead of winter in the middle of nowhere, have served up to Republican strategists a handy reminder that voters care about competence, can spot its absence, and punish its lack. 

This should surprise Canadian conservatives less than anyone. Stephen Harper is custom-designed to be disliked by liberals and social-democrats, but he has a decent education and is obviously really smart. Under him, Canadian conservatism has continued nearly 20 years of momentum, which stalled only when the movement’s most conservative wing wrested control of its main party from Preston Manning and gave it to Stockwell Day, who was not obviously really smart.

Within Harper’s entourage — both paid political staff and within his caucus — fairly standard tests of intelligence and real-world experience determine who rises. So his chiefs of staff have been a political scientist, a blue-chip lawyer and a Bay Street money guy. The average level of formal educational attainment in his PMO has at least matched that of his predecessors’ shops. Dumb people sometimes get cabinet posts, hardly a new development in Canadian politics, but the ones who rise have, disproportionately, been the ones who weren’t dumb.

I raise all this because it was surprising to see a few Canadian Conservatives grumble on Twitter in recent months that the dreaded Liberal media was being mean to good solid folks like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. But it’s important to recognize dumb for what it is, and to understand it cannot do a political leader any good over the long run. There’s a deep anti-intellectual vein running through much of what Harper does — his attacks on Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, his know-nothing crime policy — but that’s not the same as saying he’s not thoughtful or that thoughtfulness has no place in his Conservatism.

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