Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Intellectuals are Cheap Dates

As he contemplates running for president, Mitch Daniels is not only getting rave reviews from conservative elites, but grudging respect from center-left pundits. It’s no secret why conservative elites are excited by the prospect of his presidential candidacy.  Daniels made himself spectacularly popular in Indiana by balancing the state budget without raising taxes, taking on the public employee unions and initiating the largest private-school voucher program in the country. If you’re a professional movement conservative scouring an unpromising field for an electable Republican candidate, what (besides the lack of physical stature, the indifferent looks and the spectacularly bad hair) is there not to like?

Yet you can’t blame Michael Kazin for wondering why someone with Daniels’s record is getting so much love from the center-left:
“Given his conservative bona fides, why are some prominent liberal journalists rooting for Daniels to run for president? After schmoozing with him recently at an exclusive Upper East Side gathering of premier pundits, Hendrik Hertzberg gushed, 'He doesn’t throw off the crackles of craziness. … I found his effect reassuring. To all appearances, his temperament is undoctrinaire even if some of his economic views aren’t. When it comes to red meat he seems to be a vegetarian.' According to Hertzberg, the The New Yorker’s unofficial editorial writer, the rest of the 'leftish contingent' in attendance—which included Joshua Marshall of TPM and Michael Kinsley of Politico—agreed that the diminutive, blue-eyed governor would ‘be better than' any of the other Republicans who are running to stop Obama from winning a second term.”
Kazin reminds us that we’ve seen this sort of thing before, when John McCain was running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 against George W. Bush. Remember, when he stepped onto the national political stage, Bush wasn’t yet the neo-conservative bogeyman haunting liberal imaginations.  He was the son of a moderate Republican president and a successful two-term Texas governor with a record of conciliatory bipartisanship.  And he was selling "compassionate conservatism" as an antidote to Clinton-style licentiousness and Gingrich-style ideological radicalism.

You might have thought that Bush’s record and campaign pitch would have given him a shot at being liberal journalists’ favorite Republican. Yet, in liberal eyes, his ostentatious moderation paled before McCain’s maverick persona and, above all, his penchant for public self-criticism. The zeal with which he took himself to task in exchanges with liberal journalists on the “Straight-Talk Express” was McCain’s way of affirming the intellectual authority of liberal elites. How could they not admire a guy who so visibly cared about what they thought of him? Liberals didn’t need to watch Bush campaign for very long to figure out that he couldn’t have cared less.

Adroit politicians know that ideologically minded intellectuals are cheap dates. Elections come and go, but the status anxiety of the scribbling class is a constant. So a politician who wants to differentiate himself from more pedestrian political competitors can get a lot of mileage by pretending to care about what they think.  Acknowledging the intellectual authority of ideologically uncongenial intellectuals is a way for an ideologically immoderate politician to simulate moderation without alienating his political base.  Obama did that adroitly enough that some highbrow conservatives, like David Brooks, are still pulling their punches.

Going out of his way to explain himself to an audience that includes highbrow liberal journalists, is Daniels’s way of playing the same game. That guys like Hendrik Hertzberg are congratulating a pretty doctrinaire conservative for being undoctrinaire shows that Daniels knows how to play.

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