The Texan Who Couldn't Shoot Straight

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Begala

Rick Perry came roaring out of the gate, but now his campaign is sinking. Here's what he's done wrong.

See, I told ya. You laughed when I said Rick Perry was the candidate for those who thought George W. Bush was too cerebral. You giggled when I pointed out he got a C in animal breeding at Texas A&M (and that I have goats who managed to ace that subject). Some folks even thought it was unfair when I described Perry as having a small, reptilian brain.

But in other important ways I was wrong. I overestimated Perry's political skills and underestimated the devastating impact of bad debates when you're out in front.

As the Texas governor seeks to right his campaign, here are six things I think he got wrong from the start:

The stench of Bush still lingers. Team Perry went to great lengths to tell the press about tension between them and Bushland. Didn't matter. Perry looks like a guy at an office party doing a bad impression of Will Ferrell doing an impression of Bush. Sure, Bush was a Coca-Cola cowboy, and Perry is the real deal (for good and ill; no Bush would have hunted at a ranch with a racist name). It may not be fair, but when you call to mind the worst president in a century, you start at a disadvantage. Maybe that's why the very smart, very talented Jeb Bush isn't running.

Ideas matter. A few months before launching his campaign, Perry wrote a book. They all do, but Perry's was the antithesis of the usual pablum. He wrote a diatribe--an all-out attack on the 20th century. Social Security is a criminal enterprise. Medicare is unconstitutional. Even in a GOP primary, those ideas are extreme. Perry seemed unable to defend them with more than bluster.

Debates now drive everything. This is a new development. In 2008, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd had standout debate performances while Barack Obama at times fell flat. No effect. But for the GOP in 2011, things are very different. The debate ratings are high, and so are the stakes. And Perry isn't just a mediocre debater; he sucks. He loses energy and focus as the evening wears on, and by the second half he can't even repeat the canned attack lines his aides have forced him to (kinda) memorize. …