Rick Perry receives low marks for his first three debates. Is that such a big deal?
Two weeks ago, just ahead of Rick Perry’s first presidential debate, press and pundits wondered whether the Texas Governor had the skills to compete against his Republican opponents, and Obama, too.
“Because it is Perry’s first debate, much of the discussion has centered on whether Perry–whose debate skills haven’t been tested at length during his political career–is a poor debater,” wrote Rachel Rose Hartman at the time.
Perry’s display that night was lackluster as the candidate took unnecessarily aggressive jabs at all candidates, not just primary foe Mitt Romney, and wilted as the event drew on.
Later, looking ahead at Perry’s second debate, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and Mark Murray wondered whether the candidate could improve upon his first go-round: “Rick Perry’s debate performance last week in Tampa was enough to worry some Republicans (especially donors) already eyeing the general election against President Obama. He was imprecise with his language… He seemed unprepared… And he wasn’t quick on his feet.”
Perry that night again found himself fading and stumbling, particularly when it came to responding to the various attacks on past policies like the HPV vaccine.
Though Perry didn’t lose last night’s debate, he definitely didn’t win; nor did he even shine: the candidate could not come up with intelligible responses on a variety of topics, including foreign policy and national security and failed in his attacks on Romney.
“The most telling moment Thursday evening was a botched attack on top rival Mitt Romney for Romney’s move during his political career toward more conservative stances in a number of issues, an attack that obviously had been readied in advance,” said James Oliphant at the ‘Los Angeles Times.’
“But Perry blew the delivery, offering instead a muddled stew of lines about Romney’s positions on abortion and healthcare, leaving the audience at the Fox News/Google debate in Orlando, Fla., and the audience at home unsure where Romney stood now or Romney stood then.”
And Politico notes, “A more sure-footed one would have recognized that he couldn’t get away with the claim that he issued an executive order on HPV after being ‘lobbied’ by a cancer victim—because it has been publicly established that he met the victim only after he made the decision,” while ‘The Boston Globe’ remarked, “Yesterday’s event in Orlando was the third presidential debate the Texas governor has taken part in, and his performance has grown weaker each time. He seemed especially unprepared and unfocused last night.”
Perry’s campaign knows their candidate failed to impress last night, and had a prepared defense: the candidate is new to the national game, his stumbles prove he’s not over-polished and that debate skills haven’t prevented another Republican, Ronald Reagan, from winning the nomination and presidency.
Said Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Perry supporter: “People said [similar things] about Ronald Reagan in debates. They’d say, ‘You know he’s not as strong as he needs to be. He doesn’t seem to quite have the factual control the way I would like to see it.’ But you knew what was in Reagan’s heart, and that’s the thing about Rick Perry.”
Yes, the presidential debates are an important aspect of our democratic system. The primary debates allow parties to hear their candidates’ policies and get to know their personalities. Are they aggressive like Perry or sincere like Ron Paul? And the final debates between the actual presidential and vice presidential nominees provide the opportunity to compare and contrast the men and women who will run the nation. They are essential spectacles that give the nation and the world an opportunity to judge potential leaders.
But what about after the election? Does a brief stumble during a debate necessarily mean someone is incapable of being president?
Not all stumbles are created equal: flubbing an attack on an opponent is not the same as calling anti-immigration hardliners “heartless,” as Perry did last night. But policy gaffes aside, it seems to me that debate performance is simply, to use Newt Gingrich’s term, a “game show.”
The candidates are trotted out and pitted against one another like an episode of ‘The 10,000 Pyramid.’ They won’t truly need debate skills once they get into office: working with Congress requires pleading your case, yes, but not in such a fast-paced manner, and not without allies backing you up. And international diplomacy is also accomplished with a team, many of them doing the negotiations on behalf of the president. Commander-in-chiefs do not, to the best of my knowledge, have one-on-one verbal wars with foreign dignitaries.
As Kyle Wingfield at the ‘Atlanta Journal-Constitution’ notes, “Debating is but one skill, and it arguably isn’t one of the 20 or even 50 most important skills a president should possess. But it’s definitely one of the top couple of skills a presidential candidate must possess.”
But debates are not simply about whether a candidate can win an argument. They’re about proving a candidate’s sharpness. If a presidential hopeful can’t turn on a dime, they’re probably not suited for the job. That’s a truth, one that Team Romney is prepared to exploit.
“It was clear he had no idea what he was talking about,” Romney adviser Ron Kaufman told Politico.
New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a Romney donor, got more explicit, saying, “I think a lot of being president, of getting ready to be president, is understanding the complexity of the world that you have to deal in, and I think you either naturally have that countenance and that demeanor, or you don’t.”
“I think you want to have the mental faculties,” he said.
There are four more debates before the Iowa caucuses, so Perry has plenty of time to practice and improve. In the meantime, he now has to convince nervous Republican donors that his first three showings were just a warm-up.