Political Animal


September 23, 2011 2:15 PM The train wreck

By Steve Benen

Last year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) sought a third term, and his Democratic challenger, former Houston mayor Bill White, looked forward to the debates. Perry, however, simply refused to share a stage with White. It made the governor look like something of a coward, but Perry preferred that to looking like a fool.

A year later, one of Perry’s obvious weaknesses is catching up with him. The Texan is leading in each of the national polls, but his debate performances are genuinely hard to watch — the guy’s just awful in this format. It’s not just one aspect, either. Perry comes across as ignorant, unprepared, and kind of bored. What’s worse, as John Dickerson noted, “With each successive debate in this campaign, his performance gets worse.”

And while Perry’s first two debate performances caused whispers from the GOP establishment about whether the governor is ready for prime time, the reaction from Republican voices today is a veritable Texas stampede.

[C]onservative pundits have been openly dumping on Perry as a candidate — a mere month and a half after he entered the race and rocketed to the top of the polls.

Bill Kristol published an editorial at the Weekly Standard, stating the magazine’s official reaction to the debate: “Yikes.” Kristol negatively reviewed nearly all the candidates — pining for Chris Christie to save the GOP by entering the race. As for Perry’s performance, Kristol writes: “But no front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry. It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him.”

Rich Lowry wrote on Fox News: “A few weeks ago, the question was how far and fast he would ascend; now, after his third debate, it’s how much he’ll drop.” he also wrote on National Review: “I really thought Perry would get better, but he hasn’t.”

RedState’s Erick Erickson wrote late Thursday night: “Rick Perry was a train wreck in this debate.”

That’s really just a small sampling. If there are Republicans impressed with Perry’s skills as a candidate, they’re hiding well today.

So, is he screwed? Will Perry join the list of candidates who entered late, caused a stir, and then quickly fizzled? Maybe, but I wouldn’t write him off just yet.

For one thing, not that many regular folks — i.e., those not deeply involved in politics — actually watch these debates. For another, Republicans have nominated plenty of presidential candidates who looked awful when debating, including Reagan and George W. Bush. For all I know, conservative voters find this endearing — the right may not care for “slick.”

But I’m especially reluctant to write off Perry because, when push comes to shove, it’s a two-person race for the nomination. Rank-and-file Republican voters will have to decide between the guy who looks like an idiot during debates and Willard, the moderate Massachusetts multi-millionaire, best known for flip-flopping, getting rich by laying off American workers, and being part of a religious minority the GOP’s theocratic wings finds offensive.

Perry didn’t rocket to the front of the pack because voters were wildly impressed with his record and persona; he became the frontrunner because a lot of conservatives were looking for a credible anti-Romney. The cringe-worthy debate performances — and the ensuing coverage — are likely to cost Perry some support, but fundamentally, the forces that put Perry out in front haven’t changed.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • DAY on September 23, 2011 2:27 PM:

    Perry has the profile- rugged, outdoorsy, good hair- and Mitt has that smarmy, clueless grin. The one that goes with his clueless remarks about being middle class, being out of work, being a businessman.
    Point to Perry, since TeaFolk don't listen, they jeer.

  • Burr Deming on September 23, 2011 2:29 PM:

    The heart of the Perry debate problem is not his unintended Chevy Chase comedy style, it is that he amplifies the unfortunate conservative tendency to embrace their greatest debate weakness and toss away their greatest rhetorical strength.

  • POed Lib on September 23, 2011 2:30 PM:

    He's a fucking retard.

  • c u n d gulag on September 23, 2011 2:30 PM:

    And these are the same people who lauded Little Boots as the 2nd comings of Reagan and Churchill?

    Perry is Little Boots II - Dumbass Bugall.

    He's just a tad denser, and more Jesusy.

    The money boys want Romney, the ignorati base want Perry.

    Let the battle begin!!!

  • blondie on September 23, 2011 2:41 PM:

    Ah, but take the longer view ... Obama will mop the floor with him, at a time when debates DO matter.

    In fact, Obama's biggest challenge, should Perry be the Republican nominee, will be to not show him up so badly that people feel sorry for him. (Which, now that I think about the GWB vs. sighing-Gore debate, could be a BIG challenge.)

  • gf120581 on September 23, 2011 2:46 PM:

    I agree wholeheartedly that Perry's ineptness at debating is likely to destroy him come general election time. (I'm already picturing him against Obama and it's not a pretty sight.) But I also agree that it won't matter much to his support in the GOP and arguably could even HELP him among GOP primary voters. It may be that the "Anyone but Romney" mania among the GOP is so powerful that they could put a drooling lobotomy patient up on stage and he'd still come off as the frontrunner against old Mitt.

  • stormskies on September 23, 2011 2:46 PM:

    Remember when Bush was 'debating' Kerry and it was seen by all that he had that little wireless radio in his suite, hidden, with a ear piece that he thought nobody could see ? And the answers to various questions were 'wired' into his hemorrhoid head ?

    The repiglican voted for him anyway ............ he blatant and obvious stupidity just didn't matter .. all's that mattered is that he had a R next to his name ......

    Besides Repiglicans revel in stupidity .. celebrate it .. so beyond the elitist repiglican beltway media circus Perry will be an all time hit ......

  • MuddyLee on September 23, 2011 2:46 PM:

    Hello Bill Kristol: we're supposed to care what you think after you and the Weekly Standard brought us the Iraq AND the Palin invasions? (But regarding Rick Perry, you are correct - he is horrible.)

  • T2 on September 23, 2011 2:49 PM:

    Mr. Benen's last paragraph sums it up. (which I guess is what last paragraphs are supposed to do).
    It's either Mitt or Rick at this point (which is quickly becoming the point of no return). The Old Guard GOP is scared of Rick, and by extension the TeaParty. And they fear a Mormon will kill them in the general among their "base". Given the strong words by so many Conservative Pundits.....well let me put it this way, once a major voice calls Perry "disqualified" its pretty hard to walk it back. To me it looks like they were just waiting for the right spot to slam him. With Rick Perry, you don't have to wait too long.

  • slappy magoo on September 23, 2011 2:51 PM:

    @Blondie, if Obama mopped the floor with Perry in a debate (something I find likely just like you do), the right will whine that Obama was fighting "dirty," or that Obama is just such an accomplished liar Perry's only crime was trying to find a kernel of truth. All of it horsecrap, but the right will eat it up anyway. Because they want to. And they really don't like who they're told not to like from their masters.

    I'm really starting to think that the eventual nominee hasn't yet entered the race. The GOP's looking for a savior and everyone's falling short. Someone swoops in at the last possible moment, hell if possible/allowed they might even skip the first few primaries, and clean up on Super Tuesday before their faults can be dissected in detail.

  • Rathskeller on September 23, 2011 3:00 PM:

    They're waiting on Cheney. He's tanned, rested, and ready!

  • davidp on September 23, 2011 3:05 PM:

    Am I the only person to find it strange that, in spite of the vast power and momentum of this whole so-called conservative movement, they are having so much trouble in coming up with a credible candidate for 2012? There's any number of power-brokers behind the scenes, and any number of talking heads based in the so-called think tanks. But they have yet to produce a single convincing candidate for the presidency. Why?

  • bobbo on September 23, 2011 3:11 PM:

    I hated Ronald Reagan and everything he stood for, and maybe my memory is a little hazy, but I don't recall him looking bad in his debates. B actor that he was, he knew how to hold an audience. In fact, I think he got a lotta love for his "there you go again" shtick and other such gimmicks.

  • T2 on September 23, 2011 3:14 PM:

    davidp, there were 8-9 candidates on stage last night, several of them currently in elected office. About 5 have already dropped out, then there's Palin. Some, such as Giuliani, are still thinking about it. At least 5-6 current Congressmen and the fat guy in NJ are constantly being begged to run. Almost all of them have one thing in common - they espouse policy positions that would have landed them either in jail or a Mental Hospital 20 years ago, not to mention being unelectable for any office.
    The Republicans can't produce a decent candidate because at the base, they're a reflection of a section of the nation that are not particularly decent people. Witness the audience reactions at the debates.

  • Josef K on September 23, 2011 3:16 PM:

    I'm so damned sick of this guy, I'm on the verge of writing some terribly offensive stuff.

    How bad? I'm prepared to call for imposing the death penalty...for just being a registered Republican.

  • T2 on September 23, 2011 3:17 PM:

    bobbo, Reagan was an actor playing a part. Up until the time his Alzheimers kicked in.
    A guy like Rick Perry is real.

  • rk21 on September 23, 2011 3:23 PM:

    Stupidity and incoherence is an asset, not a drawback for republicans. He will go to the top of the charts if he actually starts to drool on stage.

  • yellowdog on September 23, 2011 3:32 PM:

    I don't know how G.W. Bush survived his first debate with Kerry. Bush was petulant, unprepared, and glib. His second debate was not much better. "Want some wood?" Remember Palin's performance, when she winked at the camera? If questioners challenged all the lies and misstatements, maybe these would be real and useful debates. As they are, they are ridiculous sit-coms. It does not matter much what a candidate says or does in them. Someone will be declared the winner and someone the loser. These events usually extend each campaign's misinformation rather than helping to clarify issues for voters. It does not have to be that way, but that is the way the candidates and the media agree to do it. Rick Perry will be winking at the camera before too long.

  • John B. on September 23, 2011 3:33 PM:

    Either Romney will be the only serious candidate in the race by March or after several GOP convention ballots the Wall Street banksters will finagle a nomination for Chris Christie out of the blue.

  • TCinLA on September 23, 2011 3:36 PM:

    These "debates" don't matter. The "base" doesn't care - if they did, why did Bush win against Gore, and come out somehow looking good against Kerry? Both Gore and Kerry made Bush look like the moron he is and it didn't matter with the folks who voted.

    Given the state of American politics, do not laugh at the words "President Rick Perry" or fail to pay attention to them. Remember how "misunderestimated" Bush was???

  • Josef K on September 23, 2011 3:52 PM:

    From TCinLA at 3:36pm:

    Given the state of American politics, do not laugh at the words "President Rick Perry" or fail to pay attention to them.

    Someone could always ask him on camera: "How does it feel to murder an innocent man?"

    His reaction, and the public's, ought to be good for a laugh.

  • Trollhattan on September 23, 2011 4:07 PM:

    Hmm, Palin in a suit? As has been said, I don't recall Bush being very good either but I also don't think he was quite this bad.

    There's still Crazy Eyes if they need somebody to spout talking points with zeal.

  • DAY on September 23, 2011 4:09 PM:

    Democrats are at a disadvantage during debates, in that as children they were taught good manners and a sense of fair play. Republicans were not.

    Small example: On the Senate floor Pat Leahy greeted Vice President Cheney with a smile and an extended hand. Cheney answers with a "Fuck You!"

  • Trollhattan on September 23, 2011 4:10 PM:

    Hmm, Palin in a suit? As has been said, I don't recall Bush being very good either but I also don't think he was quite this bad.

    There's still Crazy Eyes if they need somebody to spout talking points with zeal.

  • Kevin (not the famous one) on September 23, 2011 4:48 PM:

    Why can't he just read off the teleprompter?
    Or just repeat what he hears in his earpiece?

    Or shorter? Can he read?

    Palin would mop the floor with this guy.

  • liam foote on September 23, 2011 4:55 PM:

    Two recent can't-lose predictions and significant wagers on my InTrade account:

    1. Gov. Perry will not be elected President in 2012, though I did not go against the Ponz possibly taking the GOP nomination. His attack and slime people, Swift boaters, et al, seem capable and he may survive simply by destroying everyone else in the party.

    2. When Elizabeth Warren was accused of lying during a Congressional hearing and it became clear she would not be allowed to direct the agency she created, I immediately bought shares in the Dem candidate kicking Sen. Brown's butt in MA.

  • Mitch on September 23, 2011 5:17 PM:

    Oh, I do so hope that Perry's downward spiral continues. He's a moron, and I am very happy to see even Republicans realize this. Perry has a high level of common appeal, which is why he worries me. The kind of voter who thinks, "Who do I want to drink a beer with?" is the Perry kind of voter.

    Romney doesn't stand a chance in the general.

    I live in Northern California right now, but am from the Bible Belt and ALL of my conservative friends and family there have stated they will NOT vote for a "gay-loving, socialist medicine supporting heathen Mormon."

    Although I don't think that the GOP really wants the Presidency next year, hence the very weak field. They figure if they can pick up a few more seats in Congress that they can keep crippling Obama (and the country) and ensure a slam-dunk Repug victory in 2016.

  • T2 on September 23, 2011 5:26 PM:

    uh, the voters voted for Al Gore. He won the popular vote. He was the person the nation wanted as president. Bush was awarded the presidency by a 5/4 Supreme Court vote. Get a history book.

  • kanawah on September 23, 2011 6:39 PM:

    This gang (cannot call them a class, as they have none) that the republiSCUMS are offering up this time is absolutely freighting.

  • Anonymous on September 23, 2011 8:42 PM:

    It won't matter how badly Perry does, or how soundly Obama thrashes him in debates, because the mainstream media's verdict will tilt in favor of the Republican. We saw this in coverage of Bush's disastrous first debate, where everything was evaluated in terms of how the candidates did with respect to "expectations" and whom you'd rather have a beer with, with the addition of all sorts of free passes given to Bush.

    Here's my prediction for the press coverage from an Obama-Perry debate:

    Mara Liasson, NPR: "Governor Perry raised a few eyebrows with a suggestion that all the states should secede from the United States, and when he said that he would build alliances for peace in SW Asia by giving nuclear submarines with ICBMs to India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, he got through the debate without making any of his trademark gaffes. Meanwhile, President Obama, who was widely expected to trounce Governor Perry, said, "Umm," at least six times, hesitated several times more, and was momentarily speechless when Governor Perry said it was downright treasonous that the president hasn't considered doing anything to improve citizens' access to health care. This was widely considered to be a win for Governor Perry, and may make health care an even greater vulnerability for the President for the rest of the campaign."

    ABC News: "According to an AP audience analysis, Governor Perry won the debate. 61% of the panel thought that Governor Perry 'looked more presidential', whereas only 27% of the panel thought the same of Mr. Obama. 12% were undecided."

    David Brooks: "I think most watchers, like me, were hoping for President Obama to do better and were very disappointed in his performance. His insistence on trying to create jobs at the lower and middle end of the economic scale seems unrealistic, and his "warrior for the middle class" rhetoric was tired and trite. His claim to have "got" Bin Ladin seemed boastful and was reminiscent of Gore's claims of inventing the internet. Perhaps his biggest problem was that he was never able to give a credible response to how he would solve the political impasse by which the inflexibility of the Democrats and, yes, even some Republicans, have polarized Washington and brought it to gridlock."

    Rush Limbaugh: "It was just disgusting how Michelle scowled at Governor Perry when he criticized Mr Obama for having black daughters. That girl has no class whatsoever."

  • exlibra on September 23, 2011 9:40 PM:

    Anonymous, @8:42PM,

    I don't know who you are, but that piece of creative writing was *priceless*!!! You seem to have an uncanny ability to get, seamlessly, into the minds of your various targets. I was particularly impressed with the take off of David Brooks, whose smarmy pontifications I'm most familiar with (through reading the NYTimes)

  • JayinOregon on September 23, 2011 11:10 PM:

    Rick Perry = Fred Thompson

  • max on September 24, 2011 9:43 AM:

    "So, is he [Perry] screwed? Will Perry join the list of candidates who entered late, caused a stir, and then quickly fizzled? Maybe, but I wouldn’t write him off just yet."

    Ask the dummies who voted for George W. Bush twice. Is our voters learning yet?

  • Julie on September 26, 2011 12:19 PM:

    Is there any requirement that the GOP nominee debate Obama? If he gets the nomination, what's to stop Perry from refusing to debate? Other than making the RNC elites and political operatives faint, what would happen if he did to Obama what he did to Bill White? The press would object - but we know what Perry's base thinks of the lamestream media and there's no such thing as bad publicity. The pundits would natter on about this for weeks. People who care about the democratic process and elections might object to someone running for the highest office in the country refusing to debate an incumbent president. But we know what Perry's tea party base thinks of Obama and what his corporate donors think of democracy. So, if Perry does get the nomination, what is to stop him from refusing to debate? If this sounds too far out, keep in mind many of us couldn't imagine the GOP getting any more unhinged than they were during the Clinton years...

  • Milwauken on September 26, 2011 1:03 PM:

    I don't think Perry would go that far. The GOP would be more likely to set unreasonable terms for a debate that would give Obama little choice but to reject. Perry for the Win!!

  • DRF on September 26, 2011 2:10 PM:

    If Perry wins the nomination, my guess is that he will refuse to debate Obama. His refusal will lose him fewer votes than his lousy debate performance will.