09.23.11

Rick Perry’s Debate Fumble

The Texas governor is supposed to be a ruthless campaigner, but his performance was inarticulate and amateurish—in contrast to Romney’s smooth string of banalities, says Michelle Goldberg.

Well, that was depressing. There were only two surprises amid the festival of clichés and mendacity that was Thursday night’s Republican debate. The first was the crowd’s angry booing of Stephen Hill, a gay soldier serving in Iraq. Supporting the troops, apparently, only goes so far. The second was how poorly Rick Perry performed. Yes, we’ve already learned that he’s not very good at these things. But in Texas, he has a reputation as a ruthless campaigner, which makes his fumbling amateurishness on the national stage seem odd. At one point, he tried a line on Mitt Romney that was obviously rehearsed in advance, and flubbed it so badly that I almost felt bad for him—you could see the panic and frustration on his face.

“I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with,” he said. “Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment, was before he was before the social programs from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe versus Wade, before he was against verse Roe versus Wade he was for Race to the Top. He’s for Obamacare and now he’s against it.”

Of course, the Republican base doesn’t demand articulateness from its candidates. People like me might have sneered at the garbled syntax of George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, but that only boosted their anti-elitist credibility. Still, Perry seemed to lose the crowd’s sympathy when he admitted that building a wall along the United States’ southern border isn’t feasible, and he couldn’t explain away his record on Texas’s Dream Act, which allows children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at the state’s public universities.

It’s telling that Perry, like Romney, is most vulnerable on one of the most decent things he did in office. As the governor of a state with a large Latino population, he’s in a situation in which there’s no way his record could completely jibe with the preferences of a party in the grips of an angry nativism. He needed a bit of eloquence to smooth over the gap. Instead, said, “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.” It’s an admirable sentiment, and one that could prove fatal to his presidential hopes.

It’s telling that Perry, like Romney, is most vulnerable on one of the most decent things he did in office.

Mitt Romney’s words, by contrast, were utterly clear, if utterly empty. “These are tough times for a lot of people in this country, but we are a patriotic people,” he said. “We place our hand over our heart during the playing of the national anthem. No other people on earth do that. And if we’re led by a leader who draws on the patriotism, who tells the truth, who lives with integrity and who knows how to lead, America will remain the hope of the earth and the strongest nation in the world.” This ability to deliver an empty string of banalities with unctuous conviction is why he’s still the frontrunner.