Rick Perry Ponders Staying Home for Future Debates

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This announcement is an admission that the Texas governor doesn't even expect he can improve over time

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In Michigan on November 9, Gov. Rick Perry is confirmed to be on the debate stage beside his rivals for the GOP nomination. But after that? "We are going to evaluate each debate as it comes and take each one on its own merits," his campaign spokesman told the Wall Street Journal. "The primaries are right aroud the corner and there is simply more to do than there is time to do it." Put another way, Perry's so behind on debate prep that he hasn't the hours to learn everything a presidential candidate should know -- not if he's going to campaign enough to maybe become president.

Conn Carroll recommended this strategy a couple weeks back: "Perry has performed poorly in all four of the GOP debates in which he has participated. Even the candidate himself seems to acknowledge that debates can only hurt his campaign. So why show up?" he asked. "The Perry campaign is telling every reporter who will listen that debates don't matter. OK. If they really believe that, then why have Perry show up at all? Why not just work crowds, raise money, and run TV and web ads? We know Perry can't debate, so let the headlines be about what he CAN do."

There's just one problem.

The eventual GOP nominee will be forced to take the stage with President Obama, an adept debater; or else take a potentially big hit from voters who expect a debate appearance from presidential candidates, especially guys like Perry who face questions about their intelligence and policy knowledge.

This announcement is an admission that the Texas governor doesn't even expect he can improve over time. Of course, it isn't actually essential that a president be a good debater, but it is essential that he has a deep grasp of numerous issues, is a quick study, and can use the bully pulpit to good effect. As it happens, these are the very things at which Perry is failing miserably. Would you send him to meet with world leaders? To address the press corps of foreign nations on trips? To quickly understand the issues at play in a complex and unexpected crisis? To do Town Hall meetings where he persuades the American people to rally behind his policy initiatives? The guy isn't even quick enough on his feet to get off a one liner about Mitt Romney's tendency to flip flop. How would he handle a matter for which he wasn't prepared?

When Perry first emerged on the national scene, I wrote that his success as a candidate would turn, at least in part, on the George W. Bush question. "On a visceral level, are typical voters going to respond favorably to his Texas cowboy image? Or is it now sullied by its association with profligate spending, poor rhetorical skills, and a cocksure entry into an imprudent war?"

As it turns out, Perry isn't just a Lone Star State governor who wears cowboy boots. He's a word clumsy, tongue-tied communicator too. Don't get me wrong. It remains the case that the Bush comparisons are more superficial than substantive, but we suffered through 8 years of a president whose poor rhetorical skills made his supporters and detractors alike cringe.

The typical voter won't willingly go back.   


Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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