“Put this together with Perry's loud insistence that he stands by every last word in his book, Fed Up!, and it's obvious that he's decided one thing: Republican voters might or might not agree with everything you say, but they'll crucify anyone who ever admits either a mistake or even a moment's doubt. They want the mindless self confidence that comes from deep in the gut, and Perry's going to give it to them, come hell or high water. That's the takeaway from last night's debate.”Knowing where Drum’s coming from ideologically, it’s natural to interpret his words in the light most unsympathetic to Perry and the Tea Partiers invigorated by his visceral self-confidence. So it’s natural to read “mindless” in the italicized sentence as a synonym for “frivolous” or “irrational.” When you do, Drum’s words sound like an indictment of the simple-mindedness he thinks that Perry shares with the Tea Partiers.
Notice, however, that “mindless” needn’t mean “irrational” or “ill-considered”; it can also mean something less derogatory, like “unconscious” or “unreflective.” That's an important difference because the better part of moral and political judgment is a function less of conscious deliberation than of educated reflex. A person who has undergone a sound moral education is reflexively disposed to follow the right path without his having to deliberate about every step along the way. That's what we're talking about when we ask ourselves whether someone's heart is in the right place and derive comfort from the recognition that it is.
There needn’t be anything frivolous or irrational, then, about believing that “presidential rationality and moral seriousness” have a lot to do with having “prejudices” (in Burke’s sense), well-cultivated moral reflexes that encourage a president to ask the right questions in complex situations and heed the civilizational wisdom transmitted by his gut. That means that it’s an open question whether it's more important to know what a presidential candidate's gut tells him than how smoothly his brain works. It's possible that, whatever your values are, you’ll get better results from an intellectually mediocre president with sound instincts than a cleverer president with a gut that speaks softly or, worse, tends to say the wrong thing when it makes itself heard.
For a lot of people, a Perry-Obama general election will turn, in no small part on that contrast. People who aren't sold on the emanations from Perry's gut will have to ask whether his judgment is sound enough to make him a decent president. Yet people, even those who admire his intellectual dexterity, will be asking questions of their own about Obama.
Has there ever been anyone so anxious to convince us how little work his gut does in his presidency? From the time he set foot in the Oval Office, Obama wanted us to know that he understands something important that never dawned on George Bush: viz., that questions of state are too important to be answered by applying moral and political common sense. That's a large part of what he means when he insists that he's a "pragmatist" rather than an "ideologue."
And that’s why this White House is always making a spectacle of its rationality and expertise. It never tires of showing off its exemplary decision-making processes that, by ventilating all the competing views, enable an intellectually commanding president to make nuanced decisions that reconcile the material countervailing considerations. Every important administration decision is presented as the golden mean between untenable extremes. This president's zeal to convince us that he has thought of everything explains why his deliberation often seems interminable--think of the decisions to surge more troops into Afghanistan and intervene in Libya--and culminates in decisions that are too equivocal to inspire conviction, even among the people within his own administration whose job it is to apply and defend them.
That leaves some of Obama's staunchest supporters wondering, even at this late date, whether his heart is in the right place, or indeed at any place at all.