By Elvin Lim
The two front-runners in the Republican nomination contest, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, narrowed the distance between them in the last debate in Florida sponsored by Fox and Google. This is a debate that showcased both their Achilles’ heels.
Perry’s problem is not the “ponzi scheme” comment about Social Security. Most conservatives agree with him, and the consistent conservative would actually agree with him that Social Security is a matter that should be sent back to the states to handle. Perry’s problem is his record and position on immigration — this is the weak spot in his armor that the other candidates will jump on in the days to come. What Perry should have said during the debate is that it is a state’s prerogative to decide on what counts as legal residency in a state and the benefits, such as an in-state tuition subsidy, that accrue to it; and then follow up to say that as a national policy, he would respect the country’s majority’s opinion against any “magnet” policy that could encourage illegal immigration. What Perry should not have done, was wax poetic about children of illegal immigrants who did nothing wrong because this runs consistent with the charge that if his heart is soft for the children of illegals in Texas, it would be equally soft when it comes to national immigration policy. Oops.
All this then is also to say that Perry isn’t as quick on his feet as he needs to be. When Chris Wallace asked Michelle Bachmann if she stood by her comments that the HPV vaccine causing “mental retardation,” she made a politician’s pivot and attacked Perry for his executive order which would have mandated the use of the vaccine on Texas children. What Perry should have done was not to accept the redirected premise of Bachmann’s charge, but to direct Chris Wallace’s fire back at her. Perry certainly knows how to attack — he did some of that when he accused Romney of flip-flopping — but he does not (yet) know how to direct his fire when under fire.
Romney’s problem is that he isn’t sure of himself. People say he is slick and he is opportunistic — and that is correct. But the reason why is that he lacks a solid sense of his core identity, a certain confidence that allows the best politicians to be able to change their public personas at will and according to circumstance — most ignominiously like Bill Clinton — and still know what they truly believe in their heart of hearts. Romney, unlike Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, does not have a heart of hearts. And that is why when he pretends, as all politicians sometimes must, it is painfully obvious. That is why he appears like a shell of a person to the Tea Partiers who want are looking for a live, throbbing, indignant champion who can take on Obama without flinching. This would be his Achilles’ heel.
Looking ahead, it is unlikely that Romney will find himself in the next couple of months, but it is unlikely that Perry would learn to be become a much better candidate in time for the start of the primary season early next year. In the end, Republican primary voters will have to choose between a better but inauthentic candidate as Romney is and a clumsier but more authentic Perry.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.