Thursday, October 6, 2011

Presidenting and Rick Perry

I took a fair amount of grief, or at least puzzlement, in comments (and on twitter) for saying earlier today that Republicans could do a lot worse than Rick Perry (and Mitt Romney, but the comments were all about Perry) and the either would likely be "much better presidents" than George W. Bush. Since I've been asked for an explanation, I'll give one.

Basically, when thinking about who would make a good president, I want to put policy positions to the side. Obviously, a good Republican president is going to pursue and eventually enact quite different policies than a good Democratic president, and I certainly have preferences about those policies. But what I'm talking about in the Perry/Romney/Bush comment, and what I generally talk about here, is about their ability to president (or, how good they are at presidenting).

So what does it take to be good at that, and why do I think Rick Perry would probably be better than Bush? Well, mostly it starts with how low the bar is: Bush, in my view, really was astonishingly bad at it. So that raises the question of what Bush didn't have. And what I've argued is that it comes down to three things: experience in governing; basic interesting in government and public affairs; and, perhaps the trickiest one, ambition. Bush, I've argued (see here and here) just didn't have those things, with terrible consequences.

Rick Perry? He's a career politician who, as far as I can tell, is as wildly ambitious as any of them. He wants to be President of the United States not because he sobered up one day and decided to go into his dad's business, but because as a career pol it's the top of his profession. That's good; he's a lot less likely than Bush was to give up on the job, or not care what voters thing. He -- like Romney -- appears to have little problem adjusting his positions in order to secure political goals. I like that too; true believers worry me a lot, even if I agree with their policy positions. I don't know that he's been great at governing, but at least he won't be dealing for the first time with an aide withholding information in order to avoid looking bad, or a bureaucrat fighting against him by leaking stuff to the press. He should know that he can't automatically trust people, even close allies he has appointed to their positions.

Would he be particularly good at presidenting?* I don't have enough information to guess at that, but I'm not really aware of any serious positive signs. I do have some concerns about any Republican at this point, not because of issue positions but just because the party is so dysfunctional that I suspect there are unusual challenges to being a GOP president. But other than that, I don't really see any particular reason going in to be alarmed about Perry.

*You don't like my verbification? Sorry, but I'm keeping this one.


  1. Jonathan, I think if you're going to start verbifying nouns, you really should consider "governoring" as well.

    I daresay that "I don't know that he's been great at governing" would sound a lot better if instead you wrote "I don't know that he's been great at" governoring.


  2. Perry needs a Sister Souljah.

    presidenting is the art of doing the exact opposite of what your base wants, then winking at them and saying it will be ok. Obama doesn't have it. Bush -- in spades. Perry -- who knows.

    ANyone in politics knows that 95% of the battles are with your own side.

  3. Jonathan -- you are so effing naive. While True Believers are a dangerous lot as far as governing goes, so are Shape Shifters like Perry and Romney. It's not like their policy positions evolved over time due to reflection and the advice of experts. They evolved into what they are solely based on the direction of the political winds. Nothing noble or admirable about that; it's actually quite disgusting, no matter who the politician is -- and I'm aware that Obama engages in the same sort of tactic and I don't like it in him either.

    At Charlie -- that is not "presidenting," that is manipulation and unscrupulousness. It's cynical to suggest that a president's main function is to hoodwink those who elected him and in delaying their shock when things don't happen as they'd hoped.

  4. Eric,

    We certainly disagree, but I don't see my position as naive. I fully agree that Perry and Romney certainly appear to adopt positions to advance their positions. I just disagree about whether that's a good thing or not; I mostly think it's fine. Noble, no, and I'm not sure about admirable, but generally functional.

  5. I've re-read the linked posts, and I'm impressed by the analysis of the incentives faced by presidents. I'm puzzled about the take-away.

    Bush was elected to a second term as governor of Texas, by a bigger margin than when he won his first term. What was the ex-ante clue that Bush would be a bad president?

    Your argument suggests sticking to governors, since even the longest legislative career doesn't test a candidate's executive decision making.

    This reminds me of something I've been wanting to ask since a discussion of Giuliani we had long ago. There are several American cities with populations larger than the states of Arkansas and Georgia. Why is governor of a small state more of a qualification for the presidency than mayor of a big city?

    A governor's constituencies are more diverse, and more representative of the country as a whole. Any other reason?

  6. At a time when the far right is in control of the Republican party, a populist Republican is the very last thing we need. Of the two, Perry is the most likely to tell any given constituency to kiss it. Romney on the Tea Party's leash, like Cantor, is a recipe for disaster. Either way, business leaders should be realistic: if the Republicans win the White House, the US will become the enemy of the world. Our brand will suffer; our alliances will become less convenient.

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