Perry: the thwartist and the hair

Katherine Taylor

Rick Perry recently made the decision to skip some of the upcoming Republican presidential nominee debates and claims his past participation in debates was “a mistake.”

Perhaps he’s right: Before he did any debating, he was the frontrunner, and as soon as he jumped into the debating arena, he was battered, as he described, like “the pinata at the party,” according to PBS.

Plus, he’s bad at them. He motions around and sometimes pantomimes crazily. His rigid hair part is distracting. He stutters and says incoherent things such as, “Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of … against … the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment … was it was … before he was before these social programs, uh …” Say what?

And this is a strategy that has been successful for him several times in the past as well. He did it against his long time frenemy John Sharp in the 1998 race for Lieutenant Governor and against Bill White in the 2010 gubernatorial race. So why would he not repeat this winning strategy during his most important race yet?

He’s inspired Romney to do the same. Now that his biggest competitor for the Most Dazzling Smile award is stepping back, Romney is thinking he might not do so many debates either. And why would he? It’s not like he’s likeable or anything.

Since he’s not a great debater, Perry has a lot to lose and little to gain from these debates, so he’s spending his time with personal visits in battleground states, a strategy that his campaign calculated is most worthwhile, according to the Austin American-Statesman. There, in situations where not only his hair but his every word is well-groomed and stroked into place, he shines (and for the record, so does his hair).

But this strategy is harmful to voters — not simply because of some naive theory about the importance of debating in successful democracies, though that’s a good point. It’s harmful because we let Perry off the hook. He doesn’t have to think quickly on his feet, describe complicated policy solutions or defend his views anymore at fundraisers he’ll attend. He won’t have to talk about anything difficult but will instead get to focus on rallying supporters, shaking hands and kissing babies.

So maybe he’ll seem better, do better and even win the nomination. But at what cost? When it comes down to it, I can’t help but think of Matt Damon’s reaction ­to Sarah Palin’s campaign ­— if elected president, Perry will have access to the nuclear codes! And if he has that access, I would like to know that he can think quickly, defend himself and persuade people.

I want to be confident that he will know how to conduct himself in foreign countries and won’t repeatedly run into locked doors like George W. Bush did in China. I want a president who I know is well-spoken, clear-headed and able to think on his feet — even if I disagree with the words coming out of his mouth. Debating is valuable because it forces candidates to learn all these skills and put them on display in front of the American people. When we elect a president who is a strong debater, we know we’re electing someone who is capable of representing us on the international stage without embarrassing us.

If we elect people who don’t debate, what are we basing our votes on? Certainly not policy, since he won’t be forced to defend any of them. Without debates, our votes are based on personality and likability. While some may argue that debates are based on those same two factors as well, at least we get to see candidates tested in some tangible way and watch them go at it on a mostly level playing ground. If nothing else, we get a great drinking game out of it, too (drink on 9-9-9, jobs and Obamacare for a good time).

So what is Perry’s campaign now? Think of it as the political version of a Ms. America pageant: I’m sure Perry spends just as much time on his appearance as any beauty queen, plus his answers are about as relevant.

Taylor is a Plan II and rhetoric and writing senior.