Watching Rick Perry debate is not easy, especially if you're inclined to agree with him (in the abstract), but even if you're not. This guy is the governor of Texas. He's been in politics for decades. Agree or disagree, the same question comes to mind: How can he be so bad?
The obvious answer, as in most things, is practice, practice, practice. Isn't that what we teach our kids? Get back on the bike. So what if you fall again? Practice makes perfect. Better now than later.
The answer coming from the Perry campaign this week is that the governor is considering skipping the next few rounds of debate so he can spend his time getting to know voters better.
How dumb does he think people are?
After his disastrous Florida debate, Perry tried to dismiss the whole exercise, saying that conservatives know the difference between "deeds" and "words." This week on Fox News, he was even more explicit about just how useless he thinks these debates are, claiming they are "set up for nothing more than to tear down the candidates." When asked about his mistakes (and there were plenty), he insisted that "if there was a mistake made, it was probably ever doing one of the (debates) when all they are interested in is stirring it up between the candidates instead of really talking about the issues that are important to the American people."
In other words, it was all Bret Baier's fault.
Sorry, Governor, but that dog don't hunt.
More than 6 million people watched the Fox debate. The others have drawn similarly large audiences. These viewers are not idiots looking for an alternative to wrestling. My guess is that almost every one of them is a voter looking to size up the field — the very people Perry wants to get to know better.
It wasn't the format that did Perry in, nor was it his fellow candidates. He did it to himself.
Sure, putting all these candidates on the stage together with time limits on answers and tough questions from journalists is no one's idea of a great format for addressing complex problems. But believe me, it doesn't get easier when there are only two candidates on the stage. And it certainly doesn't get easier when it's the White House press corps waving their arms in the air or ambushing you with cameras and shouted questions wherever you go.
If Perry can't take the heat, he needs to get out of the kitchen — not blame the people who built it.
As the 2008 Democratic primaries proved, tough debates can make a candidate, as well as break him. Barack Obama was, quite simply, a much better candidate at the end of the process than at the beginning, in no small part because he was challenged so many times in so many debates. By the time he got to the face-offs with John McCain, he was more than ready for primetime.
If Perry is ever to become president, let alone be effective in the White House, he has to learn to answer tough questions in tough circumstances, to face biting criticism, some of it unfair, and to accept responsibility for his mistakes instead of looking to place blame.
Communication, as President Reagan taught us over and over again, is a critical source of presidential power. It's not just words. It's not just style. It's all about leadership.
Win or lose, Rick Perry needs to get back on the bike. You don't walk away from the game just because you made some errors. You dig in and do the work. You learn. You grow. If Perry walks away, as his campaign is suggesting, he will be making a mistake far graver than flubbing a debate question. It's not about words, Governor. It's about character.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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