Gov. Rick Perry stated at the outset of his presidential campaign that he is running for president based on his principles and leadership accomplishments, not his oratorical skills. By focusing on Perry’s debate missteps, the media is deliberately ignoring his record and charisma.
Six months ago, a top conservative leader privately said, “Rick is a great leader. But he’s not a great debater. And he knows it. The question would be whether he overcomes it.”
Technology regularly creates new challenges for presidents. Debating skill was a non-issue for many consequential presidents, but some are trying to make it an automatic disqualifier for the Texas governor.
America’s third president — Thomas Jefferson — was a lousy public speaker. He was literally a genius, and his singular eloquence as a writer is seen in his prose in The Declaration of Independence and other writings.
But Jefferson was no speaker, so much so that he only gave a couple speeches in his entire two-term presidency. He was so bad that he fulfilled his constitutional requirement to give an annual State of the Union address by sending a written document to Congress.
The media would pan Jefferson’s radio and television performances today. Does America regret electing such a lackluster orator?
In 1932, this country elected a president who sounded great on radio but would have been a disaster on television.
In the 1995 movie “The American President,” President Andrew Sheppard (played by Michael Douglas) complains to his chief of staff A.J. MacInerny (played by Martin Sheen) about his unfair treatment in the press. MacInerny responds, “You’ve said it yourself a million times. If there had been a TV in every living room 60 years ago, this country would not elect a man in a wheelchair.”
While many disagree with FDR’s policy goals (and his judicial appointments), no one questions his historic impact. He achieved his aggressive goals based on his principles, and changed the nation by rallying public support behind them.
But as a matter of political reality, Sheppard and MacInerny are probably right. If cameras caught FDR being wheeled onto a debate stage as an invalid, FDR would have been a zero-term president instead of a four-term president.
This media obsession with the cosmetics of Perry’s presentation ignores the substance of his agenda. Perry’s proposals on tax reform, energy, health care and re-empowering the states through federalism could make him a transformational president if he enacts them.
These proposals arise from Perry’s massive public record. A former Air Force captain, Perry is the only major candidate with military experience. And his subsequent quarter-century as an elected officeholder includes a decade as governor, when he enacted tort reform, education reform and business-friendly policies.
But some establishment figures will have none of it. It’s okay to support the Second Amendment, but not if you shoot a coyote threatening your daughter’s dog. It’s okay to have faith, but not to support a public day of prayer. It’s okay to tinker with the tax code, but not to propose replacing our dysfunctional federal tax system with a flat tax.
Hostility to Perry is in large part driven by the same factors that drove opposition to other candidates in recent elections, such as the affable Mike Huckabee. Perry is a conservative evangelical Christian, and although he never plays the victim, a cursory Google search reveals how many media commentators cannot tolerate his conservatism and his faith.
Nor is Perry alone. Other conservative candidates of faith are attacked when they break into the top tier. And as with Huckabee — who was another longtime Southern state governor — media elites ignore Perry’s charisma and connection with audiences.
Perry is a strong and effective leader. He has a quarter-century of executive experience under his belt, including three terms as governor of America’s second-largest state. And though not a great debater, he gives rousing plain-spoken speeches that receive standing ovations and connect with ordinarily Americans.
Republicans who want a good debater should vote for someone else in the primaries. Or they can just wait until next November, and vote for Obama.
America voted for silver-tongued eloquence and sparkling debate performances in 2008. How’s that working out for you?
Ken Blackwell and Ken Klukowski are fellows at the American Civil Rights Union, on faculty at Liberty University, and authors of Resurgent: How Constitutional Conservatism Can Save America.