As hard a time as I have seeing him as the Republican presidential nominee, much less in the White House, I can’t help being impressed by Newt Gingrich’s recent surge in the polls. Words matter to a party’s base, and you have to admit that he’s quite a wordsmith. As far as I’m concerned, however, the most impressive thing about Gingrich’s new found popularity is that it almost certainly means that he and Mitt Romney are going to be last candidates standing in the Republican presidential campaign.
Remember the conventional wisdom holding that the Tea Party movement had turned the Republican Party into an assembly of raving anti-intellectuals who don’t care whether the people they elect to high office have the candlepower or the education to do the job? Remember, for that matter, when it was widely presumed among non-Republicans that Sarah Palin was the presumptive leader of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party for just that reason? Well the Republican presidential field has been whittled down to the finalists and, whatever you might say against them, there's no denying that they’re both pretty well-credentialed intellectuals.
Romney’s an accomplished technocrat by any reasonable standard with a well-earned reputation for subjecting public-policy issues to rigorous empirical analysis before making up his mind. You might think that some of the decisions he has made were ill-considered, but they certainly weren't unconsidered. Granted, Romney's mastery of decision-making technique hasn't yet secured him the allegiance of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. But it's turning, instead, to a guy with a Ph.D. in history who has authored twenty-some books covering the political waterfront.
To be sure, both Romney and Gingrich have conspicuous weaknesses as presidential candidates. Romney’s penchant for substituting analysis for principled conviction has people searching for his core. Gingrich’s lack of discipline and grandiosity raises widespread doubts about his presidential temperament and electability. But in each case, their weaknesses are characteristic of intellectuals straining to unite theory and practice. If the Republican Party is a cauldron of anti-intellectualism, narrowing its presidential options down to Romney and Gingrich is an odd way of showing it.
So how wise is the conventional wisdom about today's Republican Party? The Tea Party has undoubtedly made the Republican Party more conservative but, by in least one important respect, it hasn't diminished its thoughtfulness. Nobody, after all, would ever have mistaken John McCain and Mike Huckabee in 2008 or George W. Bush and John McCain in 2000 for a couple of intellectuals.