Jonathan Chait

How Rick Perry Won the Debate

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The most intellectually interesting portion of tonight's Republican presidential debate occurred in its opening moments, when Rick Perry and Mitt Romney sparred over their states’ record of job creation. Perry cited his states record of creating jobs. Romney replied that his state inherited a worse situation, and wound up with a lower level of unemployment, while of course ignoring that Perry has governed during a recession. Perry responded that Romney created jobs at a lower rate than Michael Dukakis.

The whole exchange seemed to demonstrate conclusively that the method of evaluating a governor’s record by its job creation, by any measure, borders on useless. The effect of state policy, compared to the broader environment or other factors beyond a governor’s control, is simply too miniscule. Of course, this realization kicks the slats out from beneath Perry’s entire general election economic message.

Yet Perry, stylistically, ruled the roost. The media seems to consider Romney the winner. Pardon the condescension, but they’re not thinking like Republican base voters. Romney approaches every question as if he is in an actual debate, trying to provide the most intellectually compelling answer available, within the bounds of political expediency. Perry treats questions as interruptions. What scientists do you trust on climate change? I don’t want to risk the economy. Are you taking a radical position on social security?  We can have reasons or we can have results. His total liberation from the constraints of reason give Perry a chance to represent the Republican id in a way Romney simply cannot match.

In this way Perry eerily apes the style of George W. Bush, who was also mocked for his intellectually vapid debating style, but who succeeded in rallying Republicans behind him. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I suspect the Bush-Perry debating style broadcasts a subliminal message of strong leadership. Romney feels compelled to bind himself to the parameters of the question before him. Perry ignores them. It is, in a sense, an alpha male move. I am not going to lower myself to your premise about scientists. I am going to declare my principles.

In my view, Perry established his alpha male style, and that impression will matter more than any position or statement he’s made.

Update: I removed the photo above, which I thought was a real photograph, but turns out to be photoshopped.

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