By any objective measure, Rick Perry did not perform well in last night’s debate. According to people who have followed Perry throughout his career, he has never won a single debate he has participated in, and yet he continues to win elections. More importantly, he continues to do a good job as Governor of Texas. There is much to be said for the idea that we ought to prefer the candidate who is better at governing than debating; after all, the country went the other way in 2008, and that hasn’t turned out so well.
That having been said, Perry’s third debate performance regressed from steady-if-unspectacular to has-problems-communicating. I am sure that many conservatives who watched the debate were unfavorably reminded of the last Republican President, and wondered whether they really wanted to spend another 4 or 8 years carrying water for someone who is incapable of defending himself from a hostile press in an articulate manner. Romney, by contrast, showed a practiced flair, deflecting even what should have been home run hits from Perry, and managing to sound convincing and convicted, even when speaking outright lies (such as his denial that his discussion of Romneycare changed between the hardback and paperback versions of his book). There is no doubt that on a national debate stage, Romney would clearly fare better in debates against Obama.
The main problem with Romney, as always, is that he is a little too good at sounding convincing and convicted, no matter what it is that he is saying. Watch this clip of Romney in a gubernatorial debate in 2002 and see if you can tell any difference in either substance or style between Romney’s handling of his stance on abortion and the way he indignantly rejected the suggestion that his position on anything written in his book had changed last night:
Despite the fact that I would normally say that any Republican employing a Mediscare flier during a primary campaign should ordinarily be disqualified from office, I would happily pull the lever for Mitt Romney in the general election over Barack Obama – as I would for any of the candidates who were on stage last night. But as conservatives we should not delude ourselves into thinking that Mitt is a changed man, or is anything other than what he was in 2008. He will sound good in the debates, he will push all the right buttons and say all the right buzzwords, but it will be anyone’s guess as to whether he really means them, or whether he will pull an abrupt about-face two years (or less) from now. Perry, on the other hand, may stumble along and say some inartful things (such as the “have no heart” comment), but for better or worse, you will know where he stands and not have to wonder.
Ideally, we would have a candidate with the requisite experience, capable of beating Obama, who could both be trusted to keep his/her word and defend his position eloquently, but that candidate was not on stage last night. Many Republicans may have resigned themselves to a Romney candidacy out of the belief that he represents the best chance to beat Obama, and that belief may be well-founded. But if that is the choice we are going to make, we should not delude ourselves as to what we are getting in the process.