Is Rick Perry Too Dumb?

Ta-Nehisi Coates isn't worried that Rick Perry might be too dumb to be president:

I'm sure there some level of imbecility which would be too much for Americans, but it seems that the ability to understand and speak to the ambitions of a critical mass of the electorate is much more important. Intelligence might help that effort. But empathy--or at least the ability to communicate empathy--with your audience seems much more important.

This is a response to a point Kevin Drum made, in which he argued that Americans would find Perry to be something of an idiot. I'm sort of on Ta-Nehisi's side, but we have to make a distinction -- one I'll probably be stressing repeatedly for the next year -- between running for president and being president.

Consider George W. Bush. Bush's intellectual limitations did nothing to prevent him from being an excellent candidate, essentially because he was no smarter than the average voter. So just as many voters are persuaded by simplistic ideas repeated over and over, Bush valued simplistic ideas which he could repeat over and over. And during the election, Bush's supposed stupidity was the subject of lengthy discussion. He no doubt lost some votes because of it. But not quite enough.

That isn't to say Bush was dumb in every way -- he seemed to have a good deal of social intelligence, for instance. But his particular intellectual makeup was precisely what served him ill in the Oval Office. He combined a lack of curiosity, a Manichean perspective that found nuance and ambiguity morally repellent, and an absolute certainty that everything he believed was right. That gets you stuff like the Iraq War.

You could argue, on the other hand, that Jimmy Carter was extremely smart, but not a very good president. True enough. We're dealing with a very small sample here, and in our history, there have been smart bad presidents, and dumb good presidents (or at least good presidents with middling intelligence). All else equal, of course we'd want the guy making the decision to be as bright and well-informed as possible. But you'll notice that the doltish candidates seem mostly on the Republican side, and the people who really care how smart a candidate is are mostly Democrats. So while there's a lot to dislike about Perry, his tiny brain is probably not going to do him much harm.

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