I’m astonished that the top editors at Politico made the decision the publish these ruminations about the stupidity of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The author, senior editor Michael Shaffer, provides good evidence that at least a dozen Capitol Hill beat reporters consider McCarthy a complete simpleton. So, why, Shaffer wants to know, won’t they ever come out and plainly report their low opinion of his mental capabilities? Why do they speak only in euphemisms like “lacks…political and tactical gravitas” and “would far rather talk about personalities than the tax code”?
Amazingly, Shaffer quickly provides plentiful answers to his question, not limited to the fact that there are many different kinds of intelligence and calling people “stupid” isn’t as elucidating or explanatory as it might seem. What McCarthy lacks in intellectual substance, he makes up for in emotional intelligence (remembering names, birthdays, making people feel valued and important). He has a talent for making friends and raising money (these two things are closely related), and he knows how to lead by following.
If you want to know how McCarthy got to where is now, on the cusp of becoming Speaker of the House, the answer is most definitely not that he did so by being a moron. That doesn’t mean he isn’t a moron, but calling him a moron is probably not a political reporter’s job. It’s not even a very fruitful avenue of attack for his political opponents, as Shaffer realizes:
The politics of stupid, in fact, tend to punish the sneering antagonist that calls someone dumb, rather than the figure who gets maligned in the first place. Democrats ridiculed the intelligence of GOP presidents like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, to little effect. It’s a bad look. Most voters may not think of themselves as stupid, but nearly everyone can relate to some moment in their life when some smartypants looked down on them.
Intellectuals are never going to stop calling people stupid because they highly value book-learning and the delights of a gifted mind, but that doesn’t mean it’s good politics and it wouldn’t be good reporting either. It’s good reporting to tell people that a politician is wrong or mistaken or simply ignorant about important facts. Sneering about it is best left to columnists who write more for the titillation of partisan audiences than in the hope of changing minds.
A good writer is always thinking about what they’re trying to accomplish. Shaffer cites numerous examples of reporters saying explicitly that McCarthy does not know anything about policy and that he’s a tactical blunderer. The key information is being transmitted, and if you think a congressional leader should know about policy then you might actually care. If you’re a Republican, McCarthy’s lack of tactical skill, especially compared to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, might lead you to prefer a different Speaker of the House.
But snottily disparaging his intelligence actually helps him. First of all, most people aren’t all that knowledgable about policy and they sense that they’re being insulted too. Second, it’s just wrong in a general sense to be mean to people because they’re not as smart as you are, and that’s why it’s “not a good look.”
This column is really just a back-handed way of raising awareness that McCarthy is dumb and all the smart people know it. It’s a bad look for a publication like Politico. I can say McCarthy is a colossal idiot because I’m a blogger talking to a partisan audience. But I’m not dumb enough to think this will advance the political causes I care about or hurt McCarthy in any meaningful way.
As for Politico, this doesn’t advance any high-minded mission they might have, and it really calls into question if they have any mission at all beside getting clicks.