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Opinion: Romney, Gingrich and the French Connection

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'Liberty Leading the People' by Eugène Delacroix is in the Louvre Museum.

"In France, for instance, I'm told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up. How shallow and how different from the Europe of the past." - Mitt Romney, 2007

"Verdun still had bomb damage, or artillery damage, from World War I — 42 years earlier," - Newt Gingrich, 1986

The Republicans find themselves in a surprising situation this primary season.  After months - if not years - of anti-intellectual, willfully isolationist, science-skeptical positioning, they've found themselves with two front-runners who are just a little too worldly.

For all the criticisms you can cast at former Governor Mitt Romney and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, you can't argue they are uneducated.  Foolish, sure.  Unprincipled, unquestionably. Pandering, you betcha. But both have proud academic pedigrees.

Maybe among candidates for leader of the free world, this should be a requirement, yet the opposite at times seems true in the Republican party where passionate rejection of understanding science, logic and the world is too often applauded.  I'm not describing Michele Bachmann's mistake about where the American Revolution started or Rick Perry's brainfreeze over what agencies he would cut or Herman Cain's confusion of what Libya is.

Those were flubs (though Cain's was quite disturbing).  But Bachmann's conviction to repeat a story of a young woman becoming mentally disabled from the HPV vaccine is central to her appeal: She follows her heart, not her head.  Rick Perry's forceful skepticism over climate change shows that he's no servant to a bunch of nerds in a laboratory.

This is something that Republican strategists tell candidates voters want: A folksy charm and go-with-your-gut approach in the model of President George W. Bush and former half-term Governor Sarah Palin.  Unfortunately, many of the candidates think that they need to race to the bottom in terms of intellectual curiosity and international engagement.

Then you get two front-runners who not only are good at putting sentences together (in Gingrich's case, very long sentences), but have boasted in the past of their cosmopolitan experiences.  Yet both work hard to conceal these backgrounds as they fight their way through the primary.

In 2007, Romney claimed that the French enter seven-year agreements instead of marriage.  At the time I was flabbergasted -- not that he would believe that (as, say, Bachmann might), but that someone who so clearly knew better would say it.  It made clear that this global businessman, who probably is quite at home in the "Old Europe" Donald Rumsfeld once derided,  thought it was necessary to dumb down.

I recalled this when Romney told his story of going on a Mormon mission to France.  For conservatives who delight at France-bashing (remember Freedom Fries?), this was proof of his questionable experiences.  For me it was a reminder that he has had interesting cultural experiences - that are a liability to him in his race.

Gingrich is in a similar knot.  He portrays himself as the anti-Romney - but just like Romney, he's currently sprinting away from how smart he's tried to prove himself in the past.  He has had his own inspirational travels in France, but his real problem is that he spent years not seeking the Republican nomination and instead seeking post-partisan stature.  It was in those years that he appeared in videos about climate change with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and even worked on a book on the subject.

If we had candidates from a second party embracing their international experience, their familiarity with science and history and touting their seriousness for solving problems, many of us would view that as a good thing.  Unfortunately, for these two men, those traits are obstacles that they awkwardly confront -- and their uncomfortable hypocrisy shows.  The good news: one of them will win, and will spend the general election racing back to the center where it's OK to talk to scientists and not a death sentence to know something about France.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."