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Commentary: Will 'intellectual' label hurt Obama?

  • Story Highlights
  • Julian Zelizer: Republicans have attacked Dems as "pointy-headed intellectuals"
  • Historically, the attacks have swayed voters and hurt Democrats, he says
  • Obama hasn't suffered despite his elite education, Zelizer says
  • Zelizer: Bush's performance has given voters desire for competence
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By Julian E. Zelizer
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the author of "On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences, 1948-2000" and the editor of "The American Congress: The Building of Democracy." He is finishing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II. He regularly writes for Politico, The Huffington Post and the Washington Independent.

Julian Zelizer says that so far, Obama hasn't suffered like other "intellectual" candidates.

PRINCETON, New Jersey (CNN) -- There is a big question that hangs over this presidential campaign: Will a majority of voters give their support to the presidential candidate who is the intellectual in the contest?

Barack Obama has all the credentials of the famous "pointy-headed" intellectuals in the Democratic Party who have traditionally gone down to defeat.

He has degrees from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, he taught at the University of Chicago, and, yes, he even wrote his own books. In speeches and debates, he has bombarded voters with detailed arguments about public policy. When his character is attacked, his instinct is to respond with facts and figures.

It is extremely surprising that Obama has done this well given his intellectual persona. Anti-intellectualism, as the historian Richard Hofstadter noted, has been a tradition in American history.

Since World War II, Republicans have been very successful at making Democrats who appear too intellectual the subject of derision, symbols of how liberals are out of touch with average Americans and lack the passion needed for leadership.

In the 1952 presidential election, Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, Richard Nixon, unleashed a vicious attack on Democrat Adlai Stevenson, who had received degrees from Princeton and Northwestern Law School, for being an "egghead" too closely associated with the university class rather than the working class.

Nixon linked softness on Communism with intellectualism, saying that "Adlai the Appeaser . . . got a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment."

The anti-intellectual argument continued to be a powerful tool for conservatives. In 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan mocked Jimmy Carter as a president who could not lead in part because he became so bogged down by the details and facts that he could not see his way out of economic and foreign crises.

In their famous 1980 debate, Reagan responded to Carter's scholarly recitation of the problems in the health care system and of Reagan's opposition to Medicare, by smiling, laughing, and just saying, "There you go again."

Vice President George H.W. Bush used this line of attack against Gov. Michael Dukakis in 1988. Dukakis was extremely intelligent and comfortable with the complicated policy issues. He also was advised by some of the brightest minds in the academic world.

Dukakis stressed that he would offer competence in the White House. But Bush campaign strategist Lee Atwater tore this image apart, turning Dukakis' strength into a weakness by presenting him as an elitist Cambridge liberal who could not relate to most Americans.

Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 election was the last Democrat to fall victim to the anti-intellectual attack. Gore had an impressive résumé in dealing with the environment, communications technology and foreign policy.

In speeches and debates, he displayed a much stronger command over the issues than his opponent, George W. Bush. Yet Republicans did it again. Seeking to undermine the Democrats' criticism that Bush was an unintelligent, privileged frat-boy, the GOP depicted the Harvard-educated Gore as arrogant and cold, well-versed with the facts but not somebody you would like to have a beer with.

Voters hearing Bush's Texas accent might not have known that he was a Yalie (with an MBA from Harvard Business School) and the scion of a Connecticut-based political dynasty.

The Republicans received support from the media. One reporter in the press pool covering Gore complained that they got "the government nerd." Saturday Night Live broadcast a devastating portrayal of Gore as an arrogant know-it-all, mocking his constant sighs as Bush spoke in the first debate.

Obama looks and sounds more like an intellectual than any of the aforementioned candidates, yet he is moving up in the polls. To be sure, his campaign has played hardball in recent weeks with mockumentaries about the Keating Five and more. Overall, however, as he demonstrated in last week's debate, facts and analysis have been his weapons of choice.

What's changed to possibly blunt the anti-intellectual campaign attack? The first factor is that Obama owes a debt of gratitude to Bill Clinton, who was a policy wonk in a politician's clothing. During the 1990s, the saxophone-playing Clinton figured out a way to make competence cool.

He had a phenomenal grasp of the intricacies of public policy, yet he presented himself in such a way -- through his folksy language and dynamic speaking ability -- that voters felt as if he was not talking down to them, but to them.

Unlike Al Gore or John Kerry, Obama has been able to replicate this approach. Obama has wrapped his intellectual strength in a powerful speaking style as well and a persona that to many is cool.

The second, and more important, factor is President Bush. For many Americans, including a number of Republicans, Bush has lived up to the worst fears in 2000 about his intelligence, as well as competence. He has not managed to handle the policy challenges that confronted him and in many cases, such as his address to the nation on the financial crisis, seems unable to master the key facts.

And finally there is the financial crisis. Historians might look back to the candidates' performance in the week the financial crisis broke as a real turning point.

Polls registered a dramatic slide in McCain's support that followed Obama's appearance of deliberation and thoughtfulness over the crisis. His determination to analyze the situation carefully and seek informed advice seems to have worked better than McCain's emphasis on drama and off-the-cuff statements.

It is certainly too early to know whether an attack on intellectual elitism might work for the GOP in the final weeks of the campaign. Gov. Sarah Palin hinted at this line of attack when she said of Obama, "listening to him speak, it's easy to forget that this is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform -- not even in the State Senate."

In her interview with Katie Couric, Palin said, "I'm not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world."

Thus far, Obama seems to be joining Bill Clinton in turning a page, showing that ideas and analysis can be assets on the campaign trail.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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