So the media verdict is in: even the panel on Fox News lavished praise on Mitt Romney for not just winning the 8-man, 1-woman snoozefest in Orlando last night, but for mopping the floor with his GOP rival, the unsteady at the mic governor of Texas. But does being a good debater make a guy the Republican front-runner? Not so fast…
First, let’s recall that Mitt Romney has always been a good debater. In fact, he was the best debater in the pack, by far, in 2008. And who got the nomination? John McCain. A terrible debater (remember the idle stroll in front of the camera in his debate against Barack Obama? Or “that one”???) And Romney has always been the strongest Republican candidate on stage, on paper.
Second, as bad a debater as he is, and Rick Perry was really, really bad last night, even losing the focus of his own attack on Romney in a shambling manner that was almost like an imitation of his Doppleganger, George W. Bush (“fool me one, shame on … you … and fool me can’t get fooled again…”) he has always been a terrible debater. And he’s never lost an election in Texas. Texas clearly doesn’t value high falutin’ debate skills and intellectual acumen. Perry succeeded Dubya as governor there.
The Republican party isn’t the party that elects the smartest kid in class. That’s the Democratic Party (Jimmy Carter was a freakin’ nuclear physicist. Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar. Barack Obama headed the Harvard Law review. Even JFK, who got C’s at Harvard, was an arguably bright, sharp guy.) Republicans, particularly in the modern party, don’t just not value intellectualism, they are turned off by it. GOPers hate it when Obama pronounces Pakistan correctly as “PAH-kee-stan.” They find it super-irritating when people refuse to change the name of Iraq to “Eye-Rack.” They loved George W. Bush’s befuddlement with his mother tongue, which they saw as “plain spoken” and Reaganesque, rather than the d-word. And they take pride in raising their hands on stage to say they don’t believe in evolution or global warming. People running for president on the Republican side actually admit that kind of thing in public. All the time.
So being a smarty-pants, top debater that the media thinks is awesome is absolutely worthless in a Republican primary. Just as Jon Huntsman.
Need evidence? RedState.com? Your witness:
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.
See, that’s the point. What conservatives/Republicans value in a candidate is something intangible called “authenticity.” They value authenticity, particularly authentic conservatism, much more than they value book smarts, because conservatives see themselves as representing the experiential realm (“job creators,” people who “actually work for a living”) while they see Democrats/liberals as representing the effete intellectual/theoretical realm — spouting heavily researched ideas on, say, how to cure the recession without actually having created jobs as a business owner, or positing nifty, newfangled ideas for education without understanding that kids in Arkansas just need to learn about the lord and how to work with their hands, or whatever their parents say they should be learning, because Arkansas is different from Vermont. That kind of thing. Republicans believe that hiring the smartest kid in class (ie Barack Obama) to run the country is a bad idea because the smart kid doesn’t know how the real world operates. He’s spent too much time stuck in the library rather than working at McDonald’s with the C-average kids. In fact, I’d wager that most conservatives think C-average kids make better presidents, as a rule.
Romney’s big problem, including last night, is that as good as he is at flinging a pre-set soundbite, he’s not the least bit authentic. Not when he’s referring to himself as “middle class.” Not when he’s denying that Romneycare IS Obamacare (it is.) And not when he’s saying he had a sincere, total change of heart on abortion.
Romney’s many changes of mind on core conservative issues — his being “multiple choice Mitt” — whether it’s on abortion or Romneycare/Obamacare or Race to the Top, or whatever he’s changing his mind about at the moment, matter more to the GOP base than his ability to perform better than Perry in a debate with Barack Obama (or his being more electable, which he is.) What matters, especially this year, is what Michele Bachmann said last night: Republicans believe they are going to win the 2012 presidential election no matter what, so they feel strongly that they might as well go with a true conservative, someone they really identify with, rather than the guy the pollsters and smart-alecks in the press and political consultancies say they should go with. In that case, even the influence of the Wall Streeters and money men is limited this cycle. They aren’t going to be able to force the base to be “realistic,” when the base feels that “realistic” has let them down, and delivered tepid conservatism in the past (helloooo John Boehner!)
My prediction is that Rick Perry is not going to be hurt much by his lousy debate performance last night. Aside from the fact that no one except Fox News viewers, journalists, bloggers and Twitter snarks (I put myself in the latter three categories) were watching last night — a little over 6 million people watched, and that’s considered fantastic, while 8.7 million people watched the new “Charlie’s Angels” and that’s considered a let-down. Ah, politics. Bottom line: Romney’s win only gains him points in the media.
And conservatives don’t trust the media any more than they trust smarty-pants debate whizzes who can sound convincing saying stuff they probably don’t believe. Shorter version: the base doesn’t care what Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz and Rich Lowry think about Rick Perry. Hell, aren’t these the same jokers who told Dubya it would be a great idea to invade Iraq? Sorry, “Eye-Rack”???
Related: Mitt, Perry wage war of authenticity