What's wrong with Rick Perry? How did the successful, well-liked, long-term governor of one of America's largest states enter the Republican presidential primary race with great fanfare, zoom to the top of the polls, and then slide almost as quickly back into the pack?
Blaming the Texas governor's problems on a lackluster debating style -- as Perry himself has done after a number of poor performances -- answers only part of the question. Yes, debates are particularly important this campaign season. But debates are more than just style and popularity contests. They reveal deeper things about candidates; voters watching debates can learn not only how a candidate handles tough questions but whether he is really, truly prepared to run for the White House.
Early in Perry's candidacy, there was a spate of stories suggesting he's not smart enough to be president. They weren't subtle; one was headlined "Is Rick Perry Dumb?"
But even Perry's critics could look at those stories and say: Here is a man who has successfully governed a large and complex state, presided over prosperity and growth, dealt with the political challenges that go with it all, and won re-election repeatedly. Successful governorships don't just happen by accident; Perry's results in Texas show he is a smart, competent executive.
But the debates have revealed a different problem. 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.
Think back to a different example from a different time. In 2005, President George W. Bush nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Miers was a perfectly fine White House counsel, but she clearly had not spent a lifetime doing the kind of legal thinking that prepares one for the highest court. The White House assured doubters that Miers planned to study really, really hard in preparation for her confirmation hearings.
But it doesn't work that way. Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito didn't have to cram at the last minute for their hearings. Each had a lifetime of experience and thinking at the highest levels of the law, and their task was to organize the knowledge they already had to prepare for confirmation questioning. The important thing was, the knowledge was there. The thinking had already been done. Miers, on the other hand, wasn't prepared and finally dropped out.
There's no doubt that 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.
It's often pointed out that since Perry entered the Republican race late, on Aug. 13, he had little time to build a campaign organization and hone a campaign pitch. That's true, but the fact is, if Perry wanted to be president, he should have been thinking seriously about the substance of national issues -- not just fundraising and state party chairmen -- years before he declared his candidacy.
Now Perry is paying the price for that lack of preparation. And if that, in fact, is the real problem behind his poor debate performances, then he's not going to improve as a candidate in the next few weeks. It's far too late for that.