Rick Perry Meme Watch

As I've been arguing for years (buy this 2003 book, and I'll get 50 cents in royalties!), in presidential campaigns, candidates tend to get defined by their one or two most glaring character flaws. You can be a grumpy old man (John McCain, Bob Dole), a patrician flip-flopper (John Kerry), a congenital liar (Al Gore), but you will inevitably be caricatured, and that caricature will have a significant effect on how you're covered in the press.

As the shiny new object of the 2012 Republican primaries, Rick Perry's caricature is just now taking shape. Is he the reckless cowboy? The religious nut? The ideological extremist? Maybe. But now conventional wisdom has arrived, in the form of a Politico article titled, "Is Rick Perry dumb?" (plainly copying this post I wrote two weeks ago titled "Is Rick Perry Too Dumb?") Their conclusion: "Perry may not be a wonk, but that doesn't mean he’s a rube—a costly mistake many of his foes have made." In characteristic Politico style, it contains lots of colorful quotes but no exploration of what effect Perry's intellectual limitations might have had on his performance as governor or his performance as president.

The George W. Bush comparisons are inevitable. I predict we'll be hearing the phrase "Rick Perry is George W. Bush on steroids" long after it becomes a silly cliché. But as "reckless cowboy" competes with "dolt" to become Perry's primary caricature, it's worth remembering that the Bush-as-cowboy idea didn't take hold until after he was president. During the 2000 campaign he was "a different kind of Republican" advocating "compassionate conservatism." The big question was whether he was smart enough to be president. Voters didn't think all that highly of his brains, but he won anyway.

Rick Perry may or may not be too dumb to be president, but he is most definitely not too dumb to run for president. He's shown himself to be a good campaigner so far, although one can never tell how someone will do once he ascends to the national stage and has to appeal to people who don't necessarily respond to the same rhetoric and persona that those in his home state do. But because he doesn't actually fumble his words the way Bush did, Perry will have to work a little harder to convince Americans he's an idiot -- it'll be the substance of his words, not the delivery, that will have to do the job. But he's off to a pretty good start.