Washington’s Last Taboo: Calling Someone Stupid

From a Capital City column on politico.com by Michael Schaffer headlined “Many Reporters Think Kevin McCarthy Is Dumb. Why Can’t They Say So?”:

Is Kevin McCarthy a great big dummy?

That’s not a rhetorical question. Read between the lines of some of the coverage during McCarthy’s 15 years in Congress and you start to suspect that many folks who pay close attention to our likely next House Speaker don’t think he’s the sharpest tool in the shed.

The hints slip in, often as asides: McCarthy is “a golden retriever of a man,” “not known for being a policy wonk,” “not known for his immersion in policy details,” “not known to have a mind for policy,” “a coastal extrovert of ambiguous ideological portfolio who … would far rather talk about personalities than the tax code” and “not necessarily a policy wonk or political mastermind like his predecessors in House leadership.” His elevation would mean that “even though the fractured House Republican caucus may benefit from McCarthy’s networking abilities, others may have to step up to help filter out the details of policy quagmires to come.” No wonder “many believe he lacks the political and tactical gravitas to be a force” and “there are those who privately question his policy chops and intellectual abilities.”

It’s not hard to conclude that the authors of these lines may be trying to tell us something.

Granted anonymity, some journalists do just that. “He’s a lightweight,” says one veteran political journalist who has covered McCarthy.

“I would never consider him to be smart,” says a TV figure who has interviewed him several times.

“In a strange way that is hard to explain, he’s gotten more stupid the longer he’s here,” opines a longtime Capitol Hill reporter who has watched McCarthy since his early days of palling around with the wonkier likes of Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.

While not every Congressional reporter I spoke to shares this view — several offered faint praise by noting that there are plenty of dumber members; others make the point that anyone who masters a Congressional caucus must have something good going on — it’s safe to say it’s not an obscure opinion.

“We have a grudging respect for his political savvy, navigating himself to the position he’s gotten,” says one beatster. “He has incredible emotional IQ.”

But this isn’t actually a column about Kevin McCarthy’s intellect. I’ve never met the man, much less quizzed him about Aristotle or particle physics (or tax policy).

Rather, it’s a column about how Washington talks: If someone is in line for an important job, and people in the business of telling it like it is think that person is a dimwit, why doesn’t this conclusion get shared with the broader public?

It turns out that stupid may be one of Washington’s last taboos. Left to their own devices, insiders will bandy about all kinds of notions about prominent pols: Who’s a liar, who’s losing their marbles, who’s a dupe. But while other polite norms have crumbled — conventions against alleging dishonesty shrank during the Trump years; recent coverage of Sen. Dianne Feinstein suggests there’s a new candor about discussing senility — out-and-out accusations of dopiness are rare.

Even in opinion columns, the language tends to elide the subject. About the roughest recent assessment of McCarthy’s intellect among the writers who are actually permitted to share their point of view came from conservative Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who called him an “ambitious plodder … someone difficult for his colleagues to attack because he never had anything remotely interesting to say.” (In the same column, Gerson had no problem using short, specific, non-euphemistic language about other aspects of McCarthy, calling him a “liar” and a “hypocrite.”)

In a way, this reticence may be a good thing. A lot of journalists remain leery of assertions about intent. To say someone is lying requires knowing their state of mind; to say someone is repeating an untrue statement does not. Given the amount of acting involved in politics, is it worth going out on a limb to call someone stupid? It could all be just a big act, after all. Safer to just lay out the dumb things someone has done.

More to the point, intelligence is also something that takes a lot of forms— the ability to remember which member’s spouse has cancer or to know just how to make some insecure back-bencher think leadership really cares about him — are a big deal, too. People who ascend complicated institutions, like Congress, are rarely total zeroes.

The politics of stupid, in fact, tend to punish the sneering antagonist that calls someone dumb, rather than the figure who gets called 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.

As it happens, McCarthy has a biographical detail that could be effective jiu jitsu against anyone mocking his syntax: In Do Not Ask What Good We Do, Robert Draper’s 2012 book about Congress, he revealed that McCarthy has a speech impediment that prevented him from pronouncing the letter “R” until he was 10. Other public figures — like Biden, who has opened up about his stutter — use these sorts of battling-adversity stories to soften their public image, with a fringe benefit of undercutting anyone who might cite it as evidence of low intellectual firepower. But Draper reported that McCarthy didn’t share the story. There’s scant mention of it in the many profiles of McCarthy that have run in the decade since.

The problem for McCarthy, though, is that many low opinions about his smarts aren’t based on Bush-style mangled sentences or Reaganesque inattention to detail. Instead, they’re based on the one thing Washington beat reporters judge most harshly: tactical boneheadedness.

In 2015, the last time McCarthy was on the cusp of the speakership, he was undone by an epic gaffe — suggesting in public that the Benghazi probe was about hurting Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers, the sort of saying-the-quiet-part-loud incident that political pros disdain. (Not that they’ll quite say so: “The flap has raised questions not only about McCarthy’s political ability and instincts, but also his communication skills,” declared Bloomberg News in a typically polite assessment at the time.) The job ultimately went to Paul Ryan.

This spring, McCarthy found himself at the center of another baffling foot-in-mouth story: After New York Times political reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns reported in a new book that McCarthy had told fellow Republicans after January 6 that he intended to call on Trump to resign, McCarthy denounced the report as “totally false.” A day later, an audio recording emerged of McCarthy saying just what the pair had reported.

“Was denying the thing that was on tape dumb?” asks a reporter who has covered McCarthy. “Yeah. And we all said at the time, ‘Man, what an idiot.’”

But did anyone write that? Not really.

“He has long faced questions about his capacity to manage the unruly, ideologically fractious flock of lawmakers who make up the House Republican conference,” the Times reported the next day. The taboo held firm

Michael Schaffer is a senior editor at POLITICO.

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