Why I Think Rick Perry Did Not Help Himself

1) Ponzi scheme, as shown in the exchange below with Romney over Social Security. Romney is already in "running as the party's nominee rather than for the Tea Party vote in South Carolina" mode. Perry is not. Among the differences is Romney's recognition that he can't run next fall in Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia, and elsewhere on the proposition that Social Security is a fraud and a failure.

2) Galileo. I am on a slow overseas connection and don't have time to find the clip, but what Perry said about Galileo was flat-out moronic.* Voters don't want to be led by a bunch of eggheads and Ivy League faculty members. But I assert that over time they want someone who sounds like he (or she) knows what he is talking about -- which meant only Romney and Huntsman in this debate. There are times when a crisp, "let's not get too complicated, here are the simple truths" approach can seal the deal. The sainted Ronald Reagan had that, versus Jimmy Carter. But even Reagan labored until late in that campaign to show that he was "serious" enough for the job -- as I've mentioned before, it was a much closer race, until the end, than people assume in retrospect. And for Perry, I think that too little time has passed since the GW Bush administration. The memories of crisp, hyper-decisive, but under-informed answers to complicated issues are still there, and for a general-election campaign are not a plus. Perry sounds less "compassionate" than the GW Bush of the 2000 campaign, and less reflective or informed. 

 (OK, here is the clip -- it's the second half of this exchange, below, with Huntsman. This is from Mediaite via MSNBC and there is drop-down ad, but still.)

3) No regrets. I still have enough faith in the basic Will Rogers-style, Tom Hanks-style, even Reagan-style, humanity of the general electorate to think that the exchange below -- the lusty cheers for the announcement of how many people Texas has executed, followed by Perry's saying he has had not one instant's regret about literal matters of life and death -- is not going to wear well in a general election campaign. If I'm wrong, we've got more to worry about than even I believe. Note: we're not talking about hunting down and killing Osama bin Laden. These are cheers for executions per se.

To my eye: Romney moves smoothly ahead, Perry raises some of the "hey, wait a minute" doubts that have pulled down Bachmann since her early prominence. Romney and Huntsman, who sounded way smoother and more confident than he had before, were the two who seem as if they realize there is a campaign to run against Obama after the primaries. Obviously I am not part of the Tea Party base. But one of these people is going to have to run for non-Tea Party votes a year from now, and that's the standard I am applying.

*To spell it out: until this evening's debate, the only reason anyone would use the example of Galileo-vs-the-Vatican was to show that for reasons of dogma, close-mindedness, and "faith-based" limits on inquiry, the findings of real science were too often ignored or ruled out of consideration. And Perry applies that analogy to his argument that we shouldn't listen to today's climate scientists? There are a million good examples of scientific or other expert consensus that turned out to be wrong, which is the point Perry wanted to make. He could have used IBM's early predictions that the total world market for computers would be a mere handful, or the "expert" resistance to public-health and medical theories by Pasteur or Lister, or anything from the great book The Experts Speak.

The reason I think this stings over time is that it's like someone who tries to fancy himself up by using a great big word -- and uses it the wrong way.  Hey, I'll mention Galileo! Unfortunately in mentioning him, I'll show that I don't know the first thing about that case or what an "analogy" is. It's better to be plain spoken.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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