Surprising Shrinkage

The Republican field in the presidential sweepstakes is shrinking.  Yesterday Scott Walker made a surprisingly quick exit from the race, following Rick Perry’s departure a few days earlier.

Walker’s exit was apparently due to the modern political trifecta of failure:  lack of money, falling poll numbers, and perceived gaffes.  Walker got into the race with high hopes, as a successful governor in a purple state whose budget and tax cutting efforts were applauded by many conservatives.  He did well for a while, but never really seemed to get much traction, his numbers fell as new candidates entered the race, and although he was in both of the “top half” Republican candidate debates he didn’t make much of an impression.  He left the race with a call for Republicans to back a candidate with an optimistic approach to the issues.

It’s hard to imagine that politics could get more front-loaded than it has been over the past few election cycles, but it evidently has.  This year we’re seeing serious candidates drop out after only a few glitzy debates, months before any actual voter has a say in a caucus or primary.  It seems crazy — but it just reaffirms the power of TV, polls, and campaign contributions.

The departure of Walker and Perry may say something about the mood of the electorate as well as the new reality of the political process.  Both Perry and Walker were successful governors of significant states.  Right now, however, voters seem taken with the non-politicians, with Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Dr. Ben Carson leading the way.  If voters aren’t interested in electing someone with experience in governing, that’s not good news for John Kasich, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal — or Jeb Bush.

Did Walker panic, or simply make a wise decision to pull the plug on a campaign that turned out to be a dud . . . or does it mean something more?  In any case, if this trend keeps up we’ll soon be able to squeeze all of the remaining Republican candidates into one debate.

The Real Lesson In Perry’s Departure

Yesterday Texas Governor Rick Perry ended his race for the Republican nomination for President.  His brief campaign started with a bang and ended with a whimper — his departure wasn’t even the top news story on a day that featured stories about open marriages and another debate — but it’s worth some reflection.

When Perry came into the race a few months ago he was viewed as a formidable contender.  Why not?  He is the popular, long-standing governor of one of our largest states.  Moreover, Texas’ economic and job-creation performance has been a bright spot during the recent economic doldrums.  Perry seemed like a candidate who could present a sharp contrast with President Obama on the job and economic issues that are the primary concerns of most Americans.

Alas for Governor Perry, he just wasn’t ready for a presidential campaign.  His stumbling performances in debates caused his poll numbers to shrivel to insignificance and led his potential supporters to look elsewhere.  He seemed unsteady, and never could gain traction.  The spotlight quickly moved on to others, and by the end of his campaign, Perry had become almost an irrelevant figure.

Perry’s rise and fall shows that running for President is different in kind, and not just in degree, from other political races.  The intensity of media scrutiny and criticism, the crucial role of capable staffing and planning, the paramount need to respond quickly and forcefully to missteps or changed circumstances — all of these distinguish a presidential campaign from, say, a governor’s race in your home state.

The story of Rick Perry is one that every potential candidate for President should consider before they make the decision to run.  Seeking the presidency is brutal.  Are they truly ready, where he wasn’t?

Another Turn Of Fortune’s Wheel In Iowa

Thankfully, the Iowa Republican caucuses are tomorrow.  I don’t think I could take even one more day of breathless reports about the latest polling data.

I’ve written before about how the Iowa polls seem like Fortune’s Wheel — constantly turning, with always-new, surging would-be frontrunners who quickly crash and burn and then are replaced with latest darling.    Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich have all had their time at the top of the wheel, followed by speedy tumbles to the bottom.  According to the final Des Moines Register poll, the latest candidate to catch fire is Rick Santorum, the former Senator from Pennsylvania who is popular among social conservatives.  The poll reports that Santorum has broken into the top three, trailing only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.  Gingrich, the former flavor of the month, apparently has talked his way back into the pack of also-rans.

The polls make voters in the Hawkeye State seem as silly and fickle as a crush-addled teenager.  Given that, perhaps reporters should stop writing critically about how Romney can’t seem to be break through the 30 percent barrier and write admiringly instead about his ability to steadily retain a solid core of support among an undecided and capricious Iowa electorate.

About That $10,000 Bet . . . .

I’ll say it up front — I didn’t watch the Republican candidates’ debate Saturday night.  (Seriously, a debate on Saturday night?  Are they consciously trying to make Republicans seem lonely and pathetic?)

Yesterday, it was obvious that the media thought the big story from the debate was that Mitt Romney bet Rick Perry $10,000 about the accuracy of one of Perry’s charges.  Did the media care about the accuracy of Perry’s charge?  Nah!  No, the story was about the size of the bet.  The media, you see, has concluded that the comment about the $10,000 bet shows that Romney is ridiculously rich and out of touch with the average American.  Why, the media says disapprovingly, for most Americans, $10,000 is equivalent to several months of their salary!  That is, if the American is lucky enough to even have a job at all in our dismal economy.

And therein, I think, lies the rub.  In the past, when things were going well for our nation, we could chuckle and enjoy these media-made controversies, even if they ended up costing the unfortunate public figure their credibility and their career.  But now, the stakes are too high.  We can’t afford to toss aside candidates because of silly stuff.  Doesn’t it tell you something when the media coverage is not about the substance of any candidate’s statements about the issues of the day — but rather is about some sideshow moment?

I’m not saying that Mitt Romney knows how to end our economic predicament — but I do know that, if he does know the answer, I don’t care how rich he is or how many $10,000 bets he’d like to make.  His comment about a $10,000 bet is no more disqualifying than the fact that President Obama and his family have taken vacations that most Americans couldn’t afford.  It’s time to ignore the ginned up media storms, focus on the substance, and try to figure out which candidate — Democrat or Republican — offers the best way forward.

Rick Perry And The King’s Speech

We watched the Republican presidential candidate debate last night while we were waiting to go pick up Richard.  Every time we saw Rick Perry try to express his thoughts on the question presented we cringed.  It was painful — like the witnessing the struggles of stuttering King George VI to address the crowd at the All-England games.

Perry obviously has been a very successful governor of one of our largest states.  How, then, can he be so awful in debates?  He just can’t seem to frame a coherent thought and express it clearly.  It’s as if all of the buzz phrases and coaching points and planned gestures are dammed up in his head, pent up, and ready to tumble out in a rush if they could just find an outlet.  You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy — and I’m not sure that pity is the kind of emotion you want to generate if you are running for President.

Kish and I loved The King’s Speech, but we’re not ready to see it played out in miniature every time the Republican presidential candidates have a debate.

Surveying The Republican Field

Last week Kish and I turned on CNN at 9 to watch the news and watched, instead, the second half of the Republican candidates debate.  Here are my observations based solely on that limited exposure, moving left to right on the stage.

Rick Santorum:  Desperate for attention.  Consciously staking out the most conservative position on every issue.  (Seriously, the defense budget can’t be cut at all?)  His boast that he was best suited to beat President Obama because he had been elected in a “swing state,” without noting that he got hammered in his bid for reelection, was an eye-roller.

Ron Paul:  Looks like an elf.  Every rational point — like questioning some of our defense spending — was undercut by a nutty statement that makes you wonder what he would do if he actually became President.  It’s a scary proposition.

Hermann Cain:  Not ready for prime time.  Wants to reform the tax code — who doesn’t? — but seems to lack knowledge of foreign policy and other areas of domestic policy.  Repeated himself when he didn’t have anything new to say.  Business experience is great, but political experience is important, too, and Cain doesn’t have it.

Mitt Romney:  Glib, polished, well-prepared.  Calculated, too.  One of the most comfortable candidates on stage.  Gives the impression that there isn’t a question you could ask him that he wouldn’t be able to handle reasonably well.  Acts like he is leading the pack, and he is.

Rick Perry:  Awkward, tongue-tied, and uncomfortable.  Struggled to get out coherent sentences.  Is he  over-prepared or under-prepared, tired, or just not suited to the debate format?  It’s hard to imagine him in a one-on-one meeting with a foreign leader.

Newt Gingrich:  Smart and well-spoken.  His answer describing the silly danger of making automatic cuts if an arbitrary deficit-cutting goal isn’t met was as good an answer as you will hear in an unrehearsed setting.  Capably steered the discussion back to President Obama’s performance, where the Republicans should want it to be.  The most impressive candidate on stage.

Michele Bachmann:  An afterthought.  The answer in which she launched into a naked appeal to women who are worried about losing their homes seemed programmed and over the top.   Trying hard to look like she belongs on the stage.

The part of the debate we watched actually was somewhat interesting.  I might watch the next debate, now that we are getting ever closer to 2012.

Never Be Photographed Eating A Corn Dog

It should be a basic rule of politics:  never be photographed eating a corn dog.

During the state fair season, it’s inevitable that politicians will visit the fair.  And when they are there, the politicians will want to do whatever it takes to show that they can identify with and understand the concerns of their fellow fairgoers.  What better way to communicate that you aren’t some ivory tower, out-of-touch, upper-class twit than by eating some fair food along with the rest of the dusty masses?  And, of course, the corn dog is the most basic fair food item of all.

It therefore shouldn’t be surprising that staffers think having the candidate eat a corn dog seems like a fine idea. The problem, however, is that there is no graceful way to eat a corn dog.  Obviously, you don’t use a knife and fork.  It is an awkward culinary object, and most people don’t eat them regularly.

As a result, every picture you see of a politician gobbling a corn dog looks funny and unflattering.  Some are worse than others — Michele Bachmann’s recent photo, above, would be hard to top — but they all look bad.  When you think about it, Rick Perry’s photo to the left isn’t really much better.

If I wear running a campaign, I’d impose a no corn dog rule.  Munching on elephant ears, hot dogs, and ears of corn all are perfectly capable of communicating the “everyman” message, without running the risk of the dreaded corn dog photo.