Rick Perry in GOP Debate: So Strong - and So Wrong - Rolling Stone
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Rick Perry in GOP Debate: So Strong – and So Wrong

rick perry tea party debate

Texas Governor Rick Perry at last night's debate.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Say what you will about Rick Perry, there’s a presence to the man. You saw it last night in during the singing of the national anthem during the, er, opening ceremony — how else to describe it? — for last night’s CNN/Tea Party Express debate.  

As the rest of the candidates stood in their suits, awkwardly mouthing the words to the Star Spangled Banner like business executives at a baseball game who’d just realized they’d been spotted by the jumbotron cameraman, Perry stood ramrod straight, his fingers militantly guarding his heart. The projection of strength, confidence and patriotism was as striking as it was effortless on Perry’s part. 

If Mitt Romney looks presidential, Rick Perry projects presidential. He’s one confident and commanding dude. Fortunately for the rest of the GOP field, the rest of the Perry package didn’t hold up nearly as well as the night wore on.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Assessing Perry’s performance in real time, heavyweight Republicans were less than impressed.

“Listening to Perry try to a put a complicated policy sentence together is like watching a chimp play with a locked suitcase…” — Republican strategist Mike Murphy

“Shorter Perry on foreign policy: If there ain’t no Texas analogy, I got nothin’ to say.” — Necon intellectual John Podhoretz

Perry came prepped for the debate with a more modulated stance on Social Security — dialing back the rhetoric from his first debate performance — and some habañero-strength one liners to fend off predictable attacks by Romney. (Mitt had a perfectly serviceable B/B+ debate performance but failed to knock the grin off Perry’s mug.)

Perry’s weakest moment – by far – came in an exchange with Michele Bachmann over Perry’s executive order mandating that preeteen girls in Texas be vaccinated for a sexually transmitted disease.

It was a telling exchange because it teased out real weaknesses for Perry. First: There’s a dark side to his unerring confidence; he makes reckless decisions and people’s rights get trampled. Second: Perry’s a corruptible politician who rewards deep-pocketed interests, in this case the drug company Merck. Third: Perry’s varnish of compassionate conservatism? It’s about a 16th of an inch thick.

Watch the full exchange, you’ll see what I mean: 

Bachmann launches these attacks from the conspiratorial right (see: “government vaccine”). But the same avenues of attack will be available to Obama against Perry should he reach the general election — and they’ll be even more potent.

On a policy level, Perry’s executive decision to mandate an injection for young girls epitomizes everything conservatives rail against Obamacare for: It’s the government playing doctor, imposing its health-care judgment on patients — and, worse, their kids. It’s hard to demonize Obamacare when your own record includes forcing 12-year-old girls to line up for a jab from Big Pharma.

Perry’s the kind of candidate who can grab America by the gut. His lack of book smarts won’t hurt him much — and against a professorial president his intellectual deficit will no doubt be an asset for some voters.

But you can defeat a man like that by convincing voters he’s got no heart. Bachmann accused Perry of selling out innocent kids to a drug company for $5,000. Perry’s answer wasn’t to look into the camera and tell America’s parents: Don’t listen to this mad woman, I’ve your back. He looked over at Bachmann, bragged about the millions he’s raised, and told her in essence: Honey, I ain’t that cheap.

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