Rick Perry: The Problem ...

Not even Rick Perry’s most passionate supporters can deny that his performance in the last three debates were anything but triumphs – and even if they refuse to admit it, the entire world is seeing it in the polls. The fact of the matter is that he got progressively worse during each debate and from one debate to the next. Frankly, he needs to get that fixed – it has nothing to do with attacking Romney, and everything to do with the deer in the headlights act when he was hit with the most embarrassingly predictable attacks on his record. One more bad debate performance, and people would start tuning him out and chances are 50-50 he’s out of the race by year’s end. Even if he does succeed in securing the nomination, we can’t afford to have him turn in the same performance when he’s on stage with Obama.

As it stands, he was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce himself to the American people that every other person on the stage would have killed for, and he not only botched it, he gave ammunition to his detractors, both from within and outside the party to help them solidify the memes they had been spreading about him – yet another dim-bulb from Texas who was just lucky enough to be around when his state was doing well.

I’ve seen all sorts of interesting (often contradictory) excuses for Perry’s poor debate performances – his back (surgery, y’know?) must’ve hurt (what about painkillers and sitting down during the commercial breaks?), he just doesn’t debate well (so?), he wasn’t prepared (wasn’t he an Eagle Scout? “Be Prepared”?), he must have been tired (Red Bull?), he was overcoached (not a comforting thought), and so on. Well, color me unsympathetic – he’s running for President of the United States; did he think it was going to be an easy mosey on down to the Oval Office?

The bulk of the punditocracy seems to have settled on Perry simply not preparing for the debates – and his campaign’s patently absurd “Debate-prep is for sissies!” stand sorta gives weight to this conclusion. But I happen to think Perry and his campaign did prepare. The reason I think this is because seven years ago, I watched another Texan deliver a virtually identical performance – the same non-responsive answers, the same repeating of the same tired old talking points, the same retreats to shallow poll-tested pabulum. Which is ironic, considering that reminding anyone of George W. Bush is clearly something Perry campaign really wants to avoid – it’s bad enough the poster to the right (and others like it) is going to be all over 2012 if Perry actually does secure the nomination.

September 30th 2004, I was in the UK and five hours ahead of EST, so I had to be up at 0200 the next day to watch the live broadcast of President Bush squaring off against John Kerry in the first Presidential Debate at the University of Miami. The next day, still livid, I posted a comment on (I think) Bryan Preston former blogging digs, (junkyardblog.net – if I’m not mistaken) wondering why anyone who had invested any time, effort and money to make sure America returns President Bush to the Oval Office would feel in any way encouraged to continue anything beyond the bare minimum when the President himself very obviously could not be bothered to offer his supporters the courtesy to prepare for a debate.

I discovered this was the consensus view of the blogosphere on the Right – Bush (providing us with a preview of the next four years) simply let Kerry get away with murder, and wasted numerous opportunities restating the same tired old talking points instead of forcefully defending his administration and aggressively challenging Kerry’s barely masked allegations about “letting” Bin Laden “escape” at Tora Bora and (over the course of the campaign) lying the nation into the War in Iraq with falsified intelligence data.

The sole exception was one commenter who claimed to be an employee of one of the “top Republican political consultancies” in the country. And in his “professional” opinion, the President’s performance was right on target. By shoe-horning his campaign talking points into practically every answer, even when that was at best only tangentially related to the question, the President was “reinforcing” his message. By refusing to challenge Kerry’s allegations about Iraq, he was showing viewers that he was above such petty bickering and “looked like a statesman.” By avoiding any specifics or even the smallest amount of complexity in his answers, he was avoiding getting the viewers “lost in the weeds”.

The sad thing about it is the realization over the next four years of the Bush Administration that this wasn’t some guy who was going off-script – his view actually represented the current thinking of the Republican Party’s top thinkers and strategists on campaigning and political communication – a view designed (and not very well even then) for the media environment of the 20th Century – with the same conventional wisdom and polite fictions that, given modern technology, simply don’t work anymore. It is blind to the concepts of narrative, meme, public perception or the need to influence them to your advantage. The decision by the Bush Administration to not counter the increasingly accepted narrative that Bush lied the nation into the War in Iraq is a direct offshoot of this view.

Another perfect example is the 2008 McCain campaign (much like the Huntsman campaign of 2012), which continued to operate as if the endorsements of the Washington Post and New York Times were actually up for grabs – a key part of this view is the polite fiction that the mainstream media plays it straight down the middle. To show just how blind to narratives and public perception this view is, the McCain campaign decided that instead of John McCain pointing at the Community Reinvestment Act and recounting the Bush Administration’s multiple attempts to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that were all were blocked by Congressional Democrats, McCain’s answer, when asked the cause of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, should be “Wall Street greed.”

The loud groaning sound emanating from Massachusetts’ 4th District was Barney Frank heaving a sigh of relief, and the clapping sounds from Hope & Change Central was Obama’s Campaign staff high-fiving each other; once again, John McCain had stupidly jumped up to redirect ordnance to fall on his own side. No campaign with any awareness of narrative and public perception would have failed to realize that the flag bearer of the party most commonly perceived to be friendly to Wall Street is not going to be helped by that talking point. If the problem is “Wall Street greed”, then the obvious solution is to vote for the party that is more likely to place shackles on Wall Street; the Democrats.

Here’s another boneheaded blind-to-narrative move – in response to the spreading narrative that Sarah Palin is too dumb to be Vice-President, thanks in part to an interview stupidly arranged with a hostile interviewer, what do you do? Do you (a) arrange more interviews and press opportunities in both friendly and hostile venues and prepare Palin to combat the narrative or …(b) hide Palin and give the narrative all the space it needs to grow? The answer is obvious to a typical Republican campaign consultant, (b)!

Perry (and probably every other Republican candidate) has the same problem – staffers who come to work in the morning and first of all reach for their copy of the New York Times, who never read blogs, see no utility beyond fundraising in social media, and still think “Never quarrel with someone who buys ink by the barrel” is still a valid aphorism to live by. Given a choice between hiring Erick Erickson or David Frum to help them reach out to the GOP Primary electorate and beyond, most of these people would go with David Frum. Newt Gingrich’s oft-expressed contempt for (particularly Republican) political consultants as unimaginative pencil pushers isn’t entirely due to his recent troubles with staffers, he’s been launching broadsides at them since Barack Obama was just some weirdly named unknown State Senator in Springfield.

How is it possible that the Perry campaign could be caught by surprise on the Gardasil issue? It was all over the blogosphere even before his formal announcement at the RedState Gathering – worse; it was all over RedState. His problematic stance on illegal immigration and in-state tuition is another obvious flashpoint they seem to have missed as issue that would come up.

The worst moment for me in the first debate with Perry on the stage was when Brian Williams painted Texas to be some sort of Third World country and Perry went to the tired old “get America working again” bromide instead of challenging Williams on his portrayal of Texas. That was a missed opportunity to put up a stirring defense of Texas’ record on education, wages (and the low cost of living), healthcare and highlight the massive number of people immigrating to Texas and the unique problems presented by having the longest border of all Southern states with Mexico and how those impact on Texas’ unemployment numbers despite massive job growth. In other words, Perry allowed Brian Williams to mess with Texas and get away with it. Worse is that it was entirely predictable that an NBC moderator would try to undercut a record so threatening to Obama’s re-election efforts.

The perception the viewer is left with is that Texas’ job growth numbers came at the price of starving, sick and illiterate children naked and dying on the streets because their illiterate burger flipping parents can’t afford to buy food or aspirin on their microscopically low wages, let alone health insurance. Of course, it would have been easy for Perry to have blasted this perception to tattered pieces. The information is out there – this infamous blog post on “Rick Perry And Texas Job Numbers” by Matthias Shapiro over at PoliticalMath should have earned him a personal thank you call from Rick Perry (even if Shapiro has explicitly stated that he’s not a Perry supporter) – but I’d bet you all anything that not one top Perry campaign staffer has even heard of it.

That’s the problem Perry’s got on his hands. Priority one; he needs to do whatever it takes to get his debating skills up to par – and then, take a good hard look at his media and communications team …

… to be continued.