If you are inclined to think someone other than Barack Obama should be president as night falls on the 20th of January 2013, and if you have seen the many opinion polls showing Rick Perry leading the Republican field, and if you watched Thursday night’s GOP debate, then some version of this scene has to be creeping in your head, and keeping you up at night:
It’s autumn 2012. The race between Obama and Perry is running neck and neck. Perry jumped out to a lead of several percentage points after finally defeating Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination, in large part because the economy is still stagnant and the Republican base is energized. But Obama has climbed back into a statistical tie and is making his challenger earn the win, because that’s what incumbent presidents do.
The two candidates are appearing in their first head-to-head, televised debate. The great middle of the American public is tuning in, only now beginning to decide who to pick: the current guy, whose performance hasn’t really wowed them and might have even ticked them off a bit, or the other guy, about whom they’ve read a few headlines but not much of substance.
The debate begins, and it hardly matters what Perry is saying — because the way he’s saying it is demanding all attention. He has a slight smirk on his face as he prepares to deliver the one-liners written down for him…which he nevertheless proceeds to stumble over. He avoids eye contact with Obama. If he doesn’t play offense well, he sure doesn’t play defense well, either — and he’s even worse at trying to change the subject. Obama seems calm and reassuring.
The great middle of the American public squirms on their couches listening to Perry. They’re not even sure what he said once the debate is over. But they just have a hard time imagining him saying anything that sounds good standing on a stage next to Vladimir Putin, or what’s-his-name from China.
The debate ends, and even Frank Luntz can’t conjure a pro-Perry response from a Fox News focus group. Oh, the poll numbers tomorrow…
Seriously, folks, I thought it was that bad for Perry on Thursday night. This was his third debate in three weeks, and he doesn’t seem to have gotten much better. Debating is but one skill, and it arguably isn’t one of the 20 or even 50 most important skills a president should possess. But it’s definitely one of the top couple of skills a presidential candidate must possess.
The 2012 election is one that conservatives view as absolutely vital. And they can’t stomach the prospect of picking a nominee whom Obama — a man who has campaigned for just about every losing candidate in America the last two years, and whose speeches on behalf of any given policy tend to lessen popular support for that policy — could pick apart on stage like Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense playing against a high-school defense.
As I’ve already noted, it hardly even mattered what Perry was actually saying. However, I’d note that, on the answers he gave most articulately — about illegal immigration and the HPV vaccine — he was defending positions with which a great many Republican primary voters are not going to agree. (And, in the case of the HPV answer, offering a rationale that may not be true.) He was beaten up at times by Rick Santorum, last seen getting pummeled in his Senate re-election bid. He was consistently outmatched by Romney, even though Romney managed to make one of the dumbest statements anyone could make in a debate: “There are a lot of reasons not to elect me.” (Think that won’t end up in an advertisement or 20 in the coming months?)
At one point, he talked about wanting to “mate up” Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain (in response to a question about which other contender he’d like to have as a running mate).
It was a bad night for the Texan.
Can he still win? Yes, of course. Even against Obama? Yes.
But he’ll have to give some performances that put this one well into the recesses of the minds of voters and, especially, the Republican bigwigs who, before they trust him with their donations and endorsements, will need reassurance that they won’t end up watching the aforementioned scene on a stage next autumn.
– By Kyle Wingfield