Is Mitt Romney Really the Smart One?

Steve Benen offers a provocative suggestion: maybe we shouldn't be thinking about Mitt Romney as the smart, informed one:

For all the jokes about the clowns that make up this year's Republican presidential field, the conventional wisdom is flawed. Romney, we're told, is the "serious" one, in large part because he speaks in complete sentences, and isn't bad at pretending to be credible. Ultimately, though, Romney's efforts don’t change the fact that he's faking it — and those who understand the issues beyond a surface-level understanding surely realize the GOP frontrunner just doesn't know what he's talking about.

If the weekend's foreign policy debate showed anything, it was that nearly all the Republican candidates are faking it when it comes to foreign affairs, but Steve lists a bunch of occasions on which Romney has said things that are just inane. So why is it that those instances haven't dented this image? He certainly benefits from his opponents: it's almost impossible to look uninformed next to Herman Cain, or to look unprepared next to Rick Perry, or to look like you have wacky ideas next to Michele Bachmann. Romney is also extremely articulate - his smoothly constructed sentences, delivered with ample confidence and without hesitation, make him sound smart. More importantly, the fact that he's been running pretty much continuously for five years means that his image is not really subject to change at this point. For instance, when Romney says we should be supporting "the insurgents" in Iran, despite the fact that there are no insurgents in Iran, reporters aren't going to pounce. Romney is supposed to be the insincere one, not the dumb one, which means a mistake like that might make it into a story, but it won't be the main point of the story.

This raises the question of just how smart and informed we want our presidents to be. What a president needs perhaps more than anything else is judgment, which is not the same thing as intelligence or knowledge. He needs to be able to sort through the options presented to him and determine the best course of action. Of course, if he comes to that decision with no prior knowledge, he won't know which questions to ask. If he isn't particularly bright, he won't be able to assimilate the newly presented information and determine what kinds of effects his decision might have. But judgement is a fuzzy quality, one that isn't easy for voters to get an accurate bead on. So they do the best they can using proxies like how experienced a candidate is and how smart he sounds.

And of course, there's a limit to how far-out you can be in the things you say before your intelligence stops looking like it would lead to good judgment. Case in point is Newt Gingrich, who is highly informed about policy, but who is prone to contradicting himself and advocating nutty things, to the point where "judgment" is about the last thing we'd associate him with.

In theory, we would want the leader of our country to be the wisest person in all the land. But of course, we don't get to choose from everyone in all the land, but from a rather smaller pool of contenders. If Mitt Romney gets to be president, he'll make plenty of mistakes, as all presidents do. But will they be the kind of mistakes that grow from being dumber than your average bear? I doubt it, but maybe that's because I've mistakenly bought in to the idea that he's the smart one.