Too Much Hat, Not Enough Cattle?

In responding to a post by Ross Douthat comparing Rick Perry to Howard Dean ("who many Democratic primary voters wanted to support, because he was speaking their language and gleefully throwing insults in the teeth of a president they hated, but also a candidate whose weaknesses were obvious enough that he couldn't finally make the sale"), Jonathan Bernstein makes a good point:

Here's the thing. What Dean meant for the Democrats in 2004 wasn't just that, as Douthat says, his public persona on the campaign trail...seemed to embody all the stereotypes associated with blue state liberals. What mattered a lot more was that he was pure and clean on the one issue that passionate Democratic activists cared the most about that year: Iraq. Many liberals that year -- well, not that year, but 2003 -- were basically very willing to overlook the plain and obvious fact that Dean wasn't really much of a liberal.

Perry's situation is a bit different. The thing about Republican primary voters and even activists this year is that there's nothing even remotely equivalent to Iraq as an issue. To make it perhaps overly speculative, my guess is that what Republicans are looking for, and why Perry jumped out to such a strong start, is much more basic: a fully qualified candidate who actually shares their position on issues. After all, it's been so long since they've had one. 2008 was full of candidates who had some grievous flaw or another, and most of 2012 is more of the same.

"Fully qualified" should be a fairly easy hurdle to cross, but it turns out it isn't. It's actually to voters' credit that they care, at least to a degree, about this. Watching Michele Bachmann, it's pretty obvious that she has only a superficial understanding of the policy issues a president confronts, and that's a big reason her support has a very low ceiling. Listen to her talk, and it becomes very hard to imagine her as president, even if you agree with her ideologically. You don't have to be a Hillary Clinton-level super-wonk to be fully qualified, but you have to at least have a substantial resume and be able to sound like you know what you're talking about. If you're missing one, you'd better have the other in spades.

Perry is in some danger of falling below that "fully qualified" bar, if he keeps performing like he did last night. It's partly his own seemingly thin grasp of issues, and partly his impulse, at this stage anyway, to start every answer with, "Here's how we do it down in Texas..." All well and good, but you ain't runnin' for president of Texas, pardner. You can definitely be too much of a booster of your home state when you try to run nationally.

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