Think Before Running For President

Byron York argues that the lesson of Rick Perry's candidacy is "Think before you run."

Byron York argues that the lesson of Rick Perry’s candidacy is “Think before you run.”

The Rick Perry who has taken the stage in four Republican debates so far is a man who, for all his governing success in Texas, appears not to have thought enough about why he wants to be president of the United States and what he would do if he achieved his goal. When critics gently say that Perry’s presentations have been “light on details,” they’re really saying Perry doesn’t seem to have thought things through.

More than anything else, a lot of thinking should precede a run for president. There’s no time to think about much of anything once the campaign begins, and there’s no way a candidate can collect and organize a lifetime of experiences into a coherent approach to national issues once he’s flying from stop to stop. A candidate has to have done his thinking long before he hits the road or steps on a debate stage.

[…]

There’s no doubt former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has thought a long, long time about being president. Romney can tell you, at any level of generality or detail you want, why he is running and what he would do if he won. He adjusts to new issues and questions by building on all the preparation he’s already done.

For Romney, debate preparation involves taking all the things he has already thought through and finding the most effective way to present them in one-minute answers. For Perry, debate preparation is trying to learn new stuff about national issues that he should have been thinking about a long time ago.

This is quite right. Perry has been in big time politics for more than a decade, successfully governing a second largest state in the country and getting re-elected time and again. He can’t possibly be a dolt. Yet he comes across as one in debates because he’s just not intellectually prepared to discuss national policy.

York reminds us of Harriet Miers, a fine and accomplished lawyer who was a superbly qualified White House Counsel but quickly demonstrated upon nomination to the Supreme Court that “she clearly had not spent a lifetime doing the kind of legal thinking that prepares one for the highest court.” The more obvious parallel is Sarah Palin, a charismatic small state governor suddenly thrust into the national spotlight as the vice presidential nominee. As steeped as she was in local Alaska issues, she obviously hadn’t given much more than a passing thought to national and international policy beyond the level of stump speech bromides. You just can’t cram for that kind of thing in a couple of weeks.

Contrast their performances with that of Barack Obama, a national political neophyte who won the presidency seemingly out of nowhere. At the time the 2008 campaign kicked off, he’d spent two years on the national stage as a backbench Senator. But he’d spent almost a quarter century thinking about politics, studying political science and international relations at Columbia and constitutional law at Harvard, teaching constitutional law at Chicago, and then running for the Senate.

Governors start out with a huge deficit in a presidential race, in that they tend to be mired in local issues and have little grasp of national, let alone international, issues. But the ones who successfully run for the presidency typically have their eyes on that prize for decades and are fascinated by the national debate. Bill Clinton was a delegate to Boys State and Boys Nation as a high schooler. Jimmy Carter was a Naval Academy man with years of military experience.

George W. Bush was an outlier. Despite his father and namesake having been president, vice president, CIA Director, UN ambassador, RNC Chair and otherwise the best credentialed president since the Founding Generation–and having worked informally in his dad’s White House–Bush seemed not all that interested in the issues and struggled in the early debates. He somehow pulled it together and won. There’s little sign Perry is going to follow that path.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. sam says:

    I heard somebody say the other day that Perry comes across as someone running for governor of Texas.

  2. sam says:

    Here’s a revealing article about his governance, Rick Perry Needs a Miracle.

  3. Micahel Listner says:

    Mike Huckabee made an interesting observation about the scrutiny received when running for President: “It’s like sticking your face in a fan.”

  4. Andyman says:

    Unfortunately, demonstrating command of national issues *might* win you one constituency, if you answer the questions in a way they like. But there’s another, possibly larger and easier to impress constituency, that wants you to spout bromides in the manner of “someone you’d want to have a beer with”.

    Perry’s real problem is that he’s not impressing either constituency. He could blather about freedom for a year as long as he seemed alert and folksy.

  5. steve says:

    The lack of curiosity about national issues is what bugs me about pols like Perry and Palin. If you really want to be President of the US, one would think you would have a native interest in national issues. That your reading would be pointed towards national issues, including foreign policy. I am left feeling that the average blog commenter, at least at the better blogs, is more highly informed on issues that some of these people who are running.

    Steve

  6. @steve:

    The lack of curiosity about national issues is what bugs me about pols like Perry and Palin. If you really want to be President of the US, one would think you would have a native interest in national issues.

    Indeed.

  7. Ron Beasley says:

    I predicted from the beginning that Perry would implode. How quickly and dramatically it happened surprised me. It didn’t take too long for people to figure out his “Texas miracle” was smoke and mirrors with a big dose of crony capitalism. It didn’t take too long to see he was a pair of empty boots.

  8. mattb says:

    @steve & @Steven L. Taylor:
    I agree with the point about national issues. At the same time I am still amazed at the positive reception in area’s of the conservative base to Cain’s comment about not worrying about foreign issues until they are immediately relevant to national issues (i.e. creating jobs).

    I understand that populism tends to go hand-in-hand with these sorts of concepts, but it’s hard to imagine the last time a “front runner” could get away with that sort of comment and maintain his position.

  9. Fiona says:

    Perry has been in big time politics for more than a decade, successfully governing a second largest state in the country and getting re-elected time and again. He can’t possibly be a dolt.

    As I recall, Bush II successfully governed Texas for several years and it turns out that, despite all his Ivy League education, he was still an intellectually incurious dolt. It’s all well and good to blame Perry’s ineffectiveness on lack of preparation, but that doesn’t preclude him from also being a dolt. In debates and interviews, he seems clueless as to what he thinks and why. Romney is far brighter–same for Cain, Paul, and Huntsman. It’s little wonder they run circles around Perry. Heck, when even Michele Bachman can get the better of you in a debate, chances are good that you are a dolt.

  10. Fiona,

    It’s worth noting that the TX Governor is a relatively weak office compared to other Governors nationwide. As I understand it, for example, the state budget is prepared and presented by the Lt Governor, not the Governor

  11. Perry has not collapsed in the polls because he has done something wrong. It´s because he did right things, like the tuition issue.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Fiona: Bachmann is highly intelligent with a superbly honed mind and has been studying the issues for years. She just happens to be a batshit crazy religious zealot. No reason in the world she shouldn’t be effective on a national political debate; most people just aren’t buying what she’s selling.

  13. ponce says:

    But he’d spent almost a quarter century thinking about politics, studying political science and international relations at Columbia and constitutional law at Harvard, teaching constitutional law at Chicago, and then running for the Senate.

    Obama also got a substantial boost from 7 of 9’s perverted Republican husband.

    If Romney has a similar stumble, the Republican nomination will fall to Perry.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: It helps to be lucky, and he got a lot of help in getting that Senate seat. But he got on stage with some of the Democratic Party’s heaviest hitters and held his own quite early.

  15. ponce says:

    But he got on stage with some of the Democratic Party’s heaviest hitters and held his own quite early.

    So?

    Sarah Palin did a decent job in her debate against Joe Biden.

    And I suspect any of the people who post here on OTB could hold their own in a political debate.

    It’s the break that lets you compete at the top level that matters most.

  16. anjin-san says:

    And I suspect any of the people who post here on OTB could hold their own in a political debate

    On national television? I know a lot of bright, informed people who freeze if they are asked to speak to a group larger than half a dozen.

  17. dennis says:

    Well, when God calls you to run for POTUS, you don’t have to prepare; you just go. Just goes to show fervent, on-the-knees prayer is no replacement for studious preparation.

  18. ponce says:

    On national television? I know a lot of bright, informed people who freeze if they are asked to speak to a group larger than half a dozen.

    Yeah, and you probably know some who are good public speakers.

    Each generation of Americans contains millions of people who would make decent presidents..but only 3 or 4 of them get to be president.

  19. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san: @ponce: Most of us are either lawyers or college professors by training, so I suspect we’d be okay in a policy discussion even in a public forum. But I don’t know that I’d ever be any good doing something like a convention speech, which Palin and others excel at. It’s a different, only sometimes overlapping, skillset.

  20. grumpy realist says:

    James, don’t forget that Sarah Palin didn’t write the speech she gave, either…..

    If we’re going to be so enamored of rhetorical flourishes, can’t we at least demand that politicians write their own speeches?

    (If I ever start running for POTUS, I’m going to start with Cicero’s denunciation of Cataline. In Latin.)

  21. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    Actually, the real lessons of Perry’s travails thus far are that the GOP nominating electorate completely is divorced from mainstream America demographically speaking and from political reality intellectually speaking and that those two schisms only get more pronounced as time marches on.