Considering the consequences of conspicuous unintelligence

The estimable Bruce Bartlett apparently made a little news this morning by speaking his mind.

Former Treasury official Bruce Bartlett labeled newly-minted Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry “an idiot” Friday.

Bartlett, who served at Treasury under former President George H.W. Bush and as a domestic policy adviser to the late President Ronald Reagan, delivered the choice words to the Texas Gov. in reference to his recent comments about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

“Rick Perry’s an idiot, and I don’t think anyone would disagree with that,” Bartlett said Friday on CNN’s “American Morning.”

This has caused a stir, since this kind of candor is uncommon on television news, especially if it’s directed at a Republican presidential candidate from a veteran of previous Republican administrations.

For what it’s worth, putting aside questions of propriety and name-calling, it’s awfully hard to disagree with Bruce’s assessment. As an objective matter, I suspect most detached observers would agree that Rick Perry just isn’t an especially bright person. That doesn’t make him unique — there are, alas, far too many unintelligent people in public office, and some are seeking the Republican presidential nomination — but it also doesn’t change the underlying truth.

The next question, though, is whether this realization matters, either practically or electorally. Ta-Nehisi Coates argued the other day that it does not.

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…. Intelligence is overrated.

Maybe, but I’d draw a distinction between “too dumb to govern” and “too dumb to win.” Ta-Nehisi seems to be speaking to the latter — Perry doesn’t need to convince the electorate he’s an intellectually curious, creative thinker, capable of examining complex issues in a sophisticated way; he needs to convince them he’s likeable and relatable.

But after the election, the requirements change. Governing requires intelligence.

In 2000, voters were effectively told, “Don’t worry that George W. Bush isn’t bright; he’ll have capable advisors to keep him on track.” What this argument neglected to mention is that sometimes advisors will disagree, and it requires an intelligent leader to pick the wisest course among many complex options. Bush lacked the intellectual wherewithal to do so, and it contributed to tragic results.

Is Rick Perry conspicuously unintelligent? All evidence suggests he is. Are his intellectual limitations even worse than Bush’s? There’s a strong case to suggest that this is true, too. Will this hurt his chances in the election? I suspect not, but it would undermine his ability to function after the election.