See, I told ya. You laughed when I said Rick Perry was the candidate for those who thought George W. Bush was too cerebral. You giggled when I pointed out he got a C in animal breeding at Texas A&M (and that I have goats who managed to ace that subject). Some folks even thought it was unfair when I described Perry as having a small, reptilian brain.
But in other important ways I was wrong. I overestimated Perry’s political skills and underestimated the devastating impact of bad debates when you’re out in front.
As the Texas governor seeks to right his campaign, here are six things I think he got wrong from the start:
The stench of Bush still lingers. Team Perry went to great lengths to tell the press about tension between them and Bushland. Didn’t matter. Perry looks like a guy at an office party doing a bad impression of Will Ferrell doing an impression of Bush. Sure, Bush was a Coca-Cola cowboy, and Perry is the real deal (for good and ill; no Bush would have hunted at a ranch with a racist name). It may not be fair, but when you call to mind the worst president in a century, you start at a disadvantage. Maybe that’s why the very smart, very talented Jeb Bush isn’t running.
Ideas matter. A few months before launching his campaign, Perry wrote a book. They all do, but Perry’s was the antithesis of the usual pablum. He wrote a diatribe—an all-out attack on the 20th century. Social Security is a criminal enterprise. Medicare is unconstitutional. Even in a GOP primary, those ideas are extreme. Perry seemed unable to defend them with more than bluster.
Debates now drive everything. This is a new development. In 2008, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd had standout debate performances while Barack Obama at times fell flat. No effect. But for the GOP in 2011, things are very different. The debate ratings are high, and so are the stakes. And Perry isn’t just a mediocre debater; he sucks. He loses energy and focus as the evening wears on, and by the second half he can’t even repeat the canned attack lines his aides have forced him to (kinda) memorize.
Use ads to attack. Perry has had it bass-ackwards, attacking in person and using paid TV for positive spots that have been surprisingly bad. Right now he’s running ads claiming he will create 2 million jobs by loosening regulations on coal and oil companies. First, someone needs to tell Rick we need about 20 million jobs. And second, no one thinks the recession was caused by too few drilling rigs. You work with what you have, so if your candidate can’t debate, just get him through the events without an unforced error—and then use TV to carpet-bomb the most dangerous opponent.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Perry has shown a surprising lack of focus. He engaged in stupid, gratuitous fights with Ron Paul, he made a veiled threat against the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and he dived into the sewer of birtherism (which stepped on the rollout of his tax plan). Perry’s sole mission, his only goal, should be to sell himself as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. Romney has done more flip-flopping than a largemouth bass on the deck of a boat. Point that out. Exploit conservative distrust of him.
Staff shake-ups rarely work. Yes, Ronald Reagan -famously fired his campaign manager in the 1980 primaries. But -Perry’s no Reagan. For most candidates, stability is far more effective. When Bill Clinton locked up the Democratic nomination in 1992, he was polling in third place, trailing both President George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot; by staying the course he gave confidence to those of us running his campaign. Same thing when George W. Bush was crushed by John McCain in New Hampshire in 2000. In Dave Carney, Perry already has one of the best campaign strategists in the business; Perry should stick with him and stop thinking that adding staff will change things.
Face it: it ain’t the staff’s fault, Governor. If you want to know who to blame for your troubles, take a good hard look at the empty head in your mirror.