Ross Douthat observes that Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee emerged from the 2008 election as the two conservative figures with some charisma and enthusiastic followers, but “both had the same Achilles’ heel: They seemed unready for high office, and owed their appeal more to personality than to substance.”
This meant that both faced the same post-election choice. Did they want to take their newfound eminence seriously? Or did they want to cash in on their celebrity?
For Palin, the serious path required at least serving out her term as governor before returning to the national stage. For Huckabee, it could have involved anything from starting a think tank to running for the Senate in 2010. For both, it would have meant wedding their political identity to ideas as well as attitudes.
I think this is all pretty much right. And as Douthat goes on to argue, there are a number of right-of-center policy wonks who’ve tried to articulate some kind of meaningful response to the nation’s problems, only to be ignored. But is he right that “there are substantial political rewards awaiting the politician who becomes the voice of an intellectually vigorous conservatism?” I’d like to think he is. But it also seems to me that going all the way back to the rise of George W. Bush in 1999 we’ve seen the conservative movement tending to fetishize stupidity and put forward the notion that there’s something actually un-American about being thoughtful, having respect for scholarship, or incorporating any kind of nuance into your discussion.
9/11 served to intensify this and for a while turned it into a mainstream attitude. The idea that the country was just kind of screwed to have a dim bulb in office amidst a national crisis was too much to handle, so instead The New York Times started running articles saying “many Democrats who once dismissed Mr. Bush as too naive and too dependent on advisers to steer the United States through an international crisis are now praising his and his advisers’ performance. Some are even privately expressing satisfaction that Mr. Gore, who tried to make his foreign affairs experience an issue in the campaign, did not win.” That moment has, fortunately, waned somewhat in the mainstream. But not, I think, in the conservative movement.