Peter Principle Politics

Or, perhaps, the Perry Princple?

Rick Perry’s “brain freeze” moment is not, I would argue, about stupidity or debate anxiety, but about the fact that he is running for job advancement.  By this I mean that Perry has been enticed to run for the presidency because of a combination of ego (many in has party practically begged him to run) and the fact that after being governor of the second largest state in the union, what else is there for him to do?  And I am not being flippant about the later point.

Consider: ambitious, driven people are typically looking for advancement within their careers.  His career is politics (and I do not say that to be derogatory, but to state a plain fact).  He has managed to make it to the pinnacle of that career within his state, and indeed has solidified a place in the history of the state by the length of his tenure in office.  To move to the Senate, which I am sure he could do if he wanted, would be a lateral move at best, and arguably a step down (if anything there are two Senators from Texas, but only one Governor).   Further, his career has been on the executive side of the ledger, and so what is the next logical step?  Well, that would be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Of course, such behavior is not unique to Perry, although it does not explain all candidates.  Ron Paul, for example, clearly has a philosophy that he believes should be applied to government. Ditto Newt Gingrich.  Candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Hunstsman have a combination of career advancement and belief that they have the requisite training and experience to advance to the next level (with philosophical and technocratic motivations thrown in).  Others, like Rick Santorum, appear to looking for a hobby, but I digress.

Back to Perry:  I think that the way he grapples for themes upon which to campaign, and his general career path underscore my point.  In regards to themes, take Perry’s flat tax proposal.  He didn’t come to the campaign with this idea.  It wasn’t something that emerged from a philosophical core.  Rather, it appears as if his campaign felt like they needed a counterpoint to Cain’s 9-9-9 plan and so they developed the multiple choice flat tax.  He even did a rerun of Steve Forbes’ post card shtick.  This is not the stuff of deep thought.

It is the same thing with the “Commerce, Education, and oops” bit:  he knows that a) limited government/attacking Washington is in vogue with the GOP selectorate (and it fits with his general campaign theme) and, b) that True Conservatives™ have been pushing for cutting three cabinet level departments since the late 1970s.  Does he really have any conviction regarding these cuts?  The evidence suggests not.  Does he even know what these departments do?  I suspect he does only in a vague sense.

Did he have his “brain freeze” because he is dumb?  No, but rather because was speaking from prepared comments about which he has no real conviction or has likely given much thought.  It is easy to forget vapid talking points (and he has demonstrated on multiple occasions) but one typically does not forget issues about which one has spent a great deal of time pondering.

Beyond the clear attempt at making up positions as he goes, consider Perry’s career in Texas politics. When it was expedient (if not required) to be a Democrat in Texas politics, Perry was a Democrat. Once it was clearly the case that being a Republican was more advantageous, he became a Republican. Then, after an election that seemed to indicate he was in serious trouble, he hung in there and found his way, at least rhetorically, into the Tea Party camp.  It is not unreasonable to argue that most, if not all, of these moves were about finding the best path to career advancement as opposed to being about principles.

I will conclude with two observations.

First, Perry’s performance to date is a clear illustration of the Peter Principle:  he has risen to the level of his incompetence and should not be seriously considered for further advancement.

Second, and more importantly, while it is to be expected that all presidential candidates run for office out of motivations linked to personal ambition and career advancement, I always find it problematic when there is no evidence of a serious reflection of the issues as being part of the motivational mix.  Candidates who discover policy along the way (e.g., Perry’s tax plan) and/or who rely on ideology-tested slogan (e.g., let’s close Commerce, Education, and Energy/oops!) raise red flags and really should be disqualifying (and by that, I mean, voters should withhold votes).

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. matt b says:

    What he said. A really well thought out posting

    And of course, now cue all the folks ready to discuss either:

    a. how “true” this is about Obama — both in that he overcame the Peter Principle because of affirmative action and/or that it’s “clear” he didn’t have any ideology of heartfelt ideas.


    b. but look at where having a wonk-in-chief (like Obama) got us. Running a State or the Country doesn’t require college professor smarts (a navel gazer), it requires CEO/executive smarts… and that means you don’t need to know everything, just how to identify a good idea from a bad one.

  2. Restless says:

    I’m shocked that a man who put on a prayer rally? summit? palooza? featuring people who believe things like the Emperor of Japan had sex with a demon is out of touch with reality.

  3. Ron Beasley says:

    In the real world we usually don’t know that someone has reached their PP limit until they are in the Job and failure happens – think Carly Fiorina. Perhaps we will escape that in Perry’s case.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    I think a large part of the issue is the late entry.

    James Fallows made this point about Sarah Palin; no matter how smart she was or how good she was at her job as Governor of Alaska, running for President of the United States and being able to address a wide variety of new issues of national and international importance requires a humengous amount of preparation that simply cannot get up to speed. He alludes to this insight today, but there is an older and better post on Palin somewhere:

    Running for national office is different from any other live public-performance feat. The range of issues on which you have to say something — and can get in trouble for saying the wrong thing — is astonishingly large. You’re going to be asked, in the course of a day, about Syria, and No Child Left Behind, and nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, and North Korean and Iranian nukes, and ethanol, and flat-tax plans plus capital-gains schemes, and Afghanistan counterinsurgency strategies, and the European Central Bank, and what have you. I spend my life learning about public issues, but half of the items a presidential candidate is asked about I could barely formulate an answer on. And for a real candidate, a foot placed even slightly amiss on any of these issues can cause lots of headaches.

    So, a candidate needs to be out there with at least a few months of less intense smallscale campaigning, re-reciting the words and getting comfortable with the give-and-take. The high leverage last-minute hero is most likely going to fail.

  5. Liberty60 says:

    But it has always been so.

    Earlier Prsidents (FDR through Nixon lets say) also had to know and speak articulately on a staggeringly wide variety of issues, and the politcal world was never any less crowded with vain, mendacious hacks.

    So what is different?

    I would suggest on difference is that we have spent the last 30 years denigrating government, and by extension the idea of government expertise, in favor of “authenticity”, and its evil twin “practical knowledge”.

    In other words, ignorance of foreign affairs is a virtue for conservatives. Swaggering cowboy authenticity and national pride trumps knowing who the prime minister of Ubecki-beki-beki-stan is.

    Ignorance of how government works in conservative circles is a feature not a bug- if the Federal government is a sewer of meddlesome bureaucrats who need to be swept out clean, why bother knowing how they work?

    Had Perry smirked and finished naming the “3 Agencies that need to be closed” he would have gotten thunderous applause.

  6. matt b says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I think a large part of the issue is the late entry.

    Perhaps… But Perry, and Palin and Cain, are not getting tripped up on the minutia so much as on major issues. Of the there Cain, perhaps due to his business and speaking training, seems the most adept of the three at handling those missteps.

    But the bigger issue that all three have is not so much the fact that they have made these mistakes — it’s that they KEEP MAKING these mistakes. They haven’t taken demonstrated that they’ve taken any steps to advance their understanding of those issues. Whats worse, at least in the case of Palin and Cain, it seems that they are doing everything they can to present that lack of development as a feature and not a bug.

  7. matt b says:


    Had Perry smirked and finished naming the “3 Agencies that need to be closed” he would have gotten thunderous applause.

    Or, if he had been fast enough to come up with the “this just proves there are too many agencies” spin on the spot, he would have been a hero as well.

    In fact, one could argue his team had let him down by not prepping him on how to bail and win. By this point it’s painfully clear that under pressure he gets tounge-tied. His debate-prep team should have drilled him on a few simple, multi-purpose returns to cover this type of mistake.

  8. matt b says:

    One final point on Perry’s general level of unpreparedness, look no further than the follow exchange from an interview this morning:

    Stephanopoulos’s next question cut to the quick of Perry’s biggest liability. “Did you fail to understand what kind of preparation it would take?”

    “[Oh Absolutely….] [F]rom the standpoint of presidency, it is a long slog and a hard slog,” Perry conceded. “But absolutely — we gave complete and absolute thought to that. but again, the perfect candidate’s never been created yet. and there’s going to be people that make mistakes. and i’ll make mine — share of ‘em.”

    You do no respond to a question that directly implies that you were/are inept (at best) with a one word affirmative like “yes” or “absolutely.” It pretty much negates the somewhat logical and political response (starting with “from the standpoint”).

  9. JHC says:

    No the basic explanation for the gaff doesn’t work at all. Perry has long been fighting the Texas oil fight with EPA and Energy and knows the subject well and its quite convincing he very much believes in that. So the fundamental theory presented here as to why he suffered “retrieval failure” doesn’t fit the example. Give it another try.