It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve posted a piece about Governor Rick Perry’s presidential campaign here at FrumForum. This certainly hasn’t been because there’s been a lack of media attention on his campaign and needless to say, not all of this attention has been positive.
His performance in recent GOP presidential debates has been lackluster at best and his poll numbers have dropped dramatically from the heights there were only a month or so ago. Still, it would be a mistake to count him out. As others have pointed out, he still has a great financial fundraising machine, a strong political staff and many Republican voters are not comfortable with the idea of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney becoming the GOP’s standard-bearer in 2012.
But all that is commentary one can find elsewhere. I’d like to point out an anecdote that I think encapsulates both the strength and the weakness of Perry’s campaign. After the recent GOP presidential debate at Dartmouth College, Perry paid a visit to a Dartmouth fraternity house to meet supporters. John McCormack at The Weekly Standard described the visit as follows:
After the debate ended, Perry showed off his skills as a retail politician at a small event with Dartmouth students…During a brief question-and-answer session, Perry asked students to raise their hands if they think Social Security will be around for them when they retire. Two or three hands popped up. “Those guys believe in the Tooth Fairy, as well,” Perry cracked. The students laughed. “Just kidding, brother,” he added with a smile. Perry spent 10 minutes shaking hands after he spoke. He asked students questions about their lives, displaying a near-Clintonesque ability to make each student feel like he or she is the only one in the room. The dull Perry who showed up at Tuesday’s debate was not the same upbeat and good humored Perry who showed up at the Beta house.
In so many ways, this anecdote says a lot about the Rick Perry campaign. On the one hand, one can see the talented retail politician that Rick Perry is and the gregarious good-old-boy image that he portrays. It’s hard to imagine Mitt Romney referring to anyone as “brother” or “bro” in any convincing way, for example. But it also shows Perry’s weakness. National presidential politics isn’t just about being friendly and shaking a lot of hands. It requires a degree of intellectual and public policy seriousness and adroitness that Perry has not been able to show he has, particularly in large public settings.
The problem for Rick Perry is that his campaign has come off like the campaign for a student body or fraternity president – lots of back-slapping and jokes, but not much substance. That’s fine in the right context and I have nothing against wisecracking over beers with amiable company. But that’s not what presidential politics is all about, even if Austin politics can sometimes seem like that. Rick Perry isn’t out of the game yet, but he needs to elevate his game if he’s going to win the GOP presidential nomination. And he doesn’t have time to meet enough people one-on-one to do that.