That is a mistake, Douthat argues, because everybody has already figured out that the emperor is unclad:
It isn't 2008 anymore, and conservatives don't actually need to explode the fantasy of Obama's eloquence and omnicompetence. The harsh reality of governing has already done that for them. Nobody awaits the president's speeches with panting anticipation these days, or expects him to slay his opponents with the power of his intellect. Obamamania peaked with the inauguration, and it's been ebbing ever since.
We've been sounding the theme of Obama's intellectual inadequacy since at least October 2010. Our colleague Bret Stephens was also ahead of the game with his August 2011 column titled "Is Obama Smart?" Lately, though, the subject has been much more widely remarked upon, especially after the president's latest dreadful speech, last week in Kansas. The usually mild-mannered Peter Wehner of Commentary declared the president a "political hack":
In his speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, President Obama took another stab at summarizing the philosophy of the Republican Party. And this is the best Obama could do: "Their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules."
This is a silly and intentionally misleading statement--silly because it's so transparently false and intentionally misleading because the president surely cannot believe his own rhetoric. The problem for Obama is it's becoming a pattern. Earlier this year, he charged that Republicans want the elderly, autistic children and children with Down syndrome to "fend for themselves."
After that, he told us the GOP plan is "dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance." . . .
These are the kinds of things a politically desperate and intellectually bankrupt politician says. The president must believe he cannot win a debate on philosophy on the merits, so he instead employs the crudest caricatures he can.
The Washington Examiner's Michael Barone:
Democrats like to think of themselves as the party of smart people. And over the last four years we have heard countless encomiums, and not just from Democrats, of the intellect and perceptiveness of Barack Obama. But a reading of the text of Obama's December 6 speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, billed as one of his big speeches of the year, shows him to be something like the opposite.
Even by the standards of campaign rhetoric, this is a shockingly shoddy piece of work. . . . What's really staggering is the weakness of his public policy arguments. The long-term unsustainability of our entitlement programs he blames solely on the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts--an explanation no serious observer regards as anything but incomplete, to say the least. He points to growing income inequality and to remedy it advocates policies that are utterly inadequate to the task. We need to be "making education a national mission," he says, and in essence argues for channeling more money to teacher union members.
Douthat, however, deserves some special credit. Given the eagerness of New York Times liberals to find ways of charging conservatives with racism, it takes some courage for a New York Times conservative to disparage the intellect of the first black president.
"What we have here, it seems [is] a president who has no serious interest in public policy," Barone concludes. "Those who pride themselves on belonging to the party of smart people should be embarrassed."
A smart Democrat might observe that, unlike the children of Lake Wobegon, the American electorate includes many people who are below average. They're entitled to a little representation, as Sen. Roman Hruska famously observed; and outside a few college-town districts, no politician will ever win election by appealing only to the far right of the bell curve. By this argument, Obama's populist appeal has a practical justification, even if its content is embarrassing.
But the funny thing about "populism" is that it doesn't seem to be very popular. As Mickey Kaus observes (ellipses in original):
So pro-business, centrist chief of staff William Daley is demoted, Obama moves to a feisty, fight back, progressive posture, casting Republicans as the party of the 1%, and . . . he loses three points in Ohio? Isn't Ohio one of the states where populism is supposed to work? . . . The poll in question was taken before Obama's big "inequality" speech in Kansas. Still . . . the shift's been going on for weeks. . . . Look at this chart of the President's national approval rating and tell me it's working.
Yet it would overstate the case to say that Obama's so-called populism, or "flopulism" in Kaus's droll portmanteau, is completely without appeal. There is one group that just loved the Kansas speech. Among its members were journalists like E.J. "Baghdad Bob" Dionne, Joe Klein and the editorial board of the New York Times, along with academics such as Robert Reich, Geoffrey Stone and Michael Kazin.
There's an irony for you. The one group to which the president's brainless bashing of businessmen and conservatives appeals consists of . . . intellectuals. Or, as Barone puts it, "those who pride themselves on belonging to the party of smart people." Obama's appeal to these self-styled brainiacs is not reasoned but emotional: He taps into their resentments.
The lefty intellectual resents successful businessmen and conservatives because they threaten his own sense of superiority. Wealthy businessmen's material success is a mark of higher status than the professor or journalist's mere affluence. Conservative politicians act as if the lefty intellectual is not morally superior. In addition, conservative intellectuals challenge his sense of cognitive superiority. Within journalism and academia conservatives are smarter than liberals on average, because the former are those who have managed to succeed despite going against the grain ideologically.
Left-liberal intellectuals, then, fail to appreciate the intellectual shallowness of the president's class-warfare rhetoric because it seduces them by reinforcing their own superiority over competing elites.
The Kleins and Dionnes, Reichs and Kazins are never going to be won over by Newt Gingrich, no matter how well he does in debate against Obama. Is anyone else? Douthat plausibly doubts it:
Gingrich might debate circles around Obama. He might implode spectacularly, making a hot mess of himself while the president keeps his famous cool. But either way, setting up a grand rhetorical showdown seems unlikely to supply a disillusioned country with what it's looking for from Republicans in 2012.
Conservatives may want catharsis, but the rest of the public seems to mainly want reassurance. They already know Barack Obama isn't the messiah he was once cracked up to be. What they don't know is whether they can trust anyone else to do better.
This is the best argument against Gingrich that we've heard. Everyone old enough to remember the late 1990s is aware of his weaknesses. But Douthat raises a pertinent question about the former speaker's greatest strength. Anyone who's watched the Republican debates this year knows Gingrich is capable of performing dazzlingly. But if Douthat is right about the degree to which Obama's intellect has already been discounted (except among lefty intellectuals), a dazzling debate performance may be neither necessary nor sufficient to defeat the president.
Another possibility occurs to us: What if Gingrich does get elected president after out-debating weak opponents, then proceeds to overread his mandate and overreach in ways that prove disastrous to his party? That pretty well describes what happened with the guy who won in 2008.