The most effective move in electoral politics is to rebut an opponent’s charges and show how they are misrepresentations and falsehoods. Media guru Tony Schwartz once said “everyone likes a fighter, but nobody likes a dirty fighter.” Negatives have their place in every campaign. But when one of them is an obvious stretch and reach, twisting facts beyond recognition to mislead voters, it can backfire massively, all the more so if it concerns a candidate’s personal life. When a negative blows up in the face of the candidate who threw it, voters learn instantly about his character. They don’t have to rummage through musty, dusty old voting records to see what he is about, they saw his below-the-belt hit with their own eyes and draw the appropriate conclusions about what manner of man he is.
That’s how it was in the recent CNN debate from Nevada when Rick Perry accused Mitt Romney of hiring illegal immigrants at his Massachusetts home. Posturing and preening, Perry denounced Romney’s “hypocrisy” in attacking his immigration record while hiring illegals himself. You could have heard the gasps around the country as Perry laid out his negative.
Everyone understood that it was the illegal immigration issue which had laid Perry low, deflating his post-announcement boom, dropping him from first place to fourth or fifth in most polls. Now, in a stroke, Perry was seeking to embarrass the candidate who had the greatest hand in pushing him down – Romney – by painting him with the illegal immigration brush.
Unruffled, Romney, at first, laughed off the charge saying “I have never hired an illegal immigrant in my life,” and went on to talk about the underlying issue of of illegal aliens, repeating his charges that Perry’s instate tuition scholarships for their children was a “magnet” to attract them. OK, but everybody watching the debate wanted more about what Romney really did. We all wondered if there was any truth to Perry’s charge and were not satisfied with Romney’s laughing disclaimer.
Then Perry, sensing weakness, honed in on the charge pushing it again. This time, Romney delivered a crushing rebuttal. The illegal immigrants had been gardeners hired by the landscaping company he used to mow his lawn. When he found out they were hiring illegals, he ordered them to replace them with legal workers “I’m running for public office, I can’t be hiring illegal immigrants,” he says he explained. Then, when the company was found to be continuing to hire illegals, Romney fired the company and hired one more in compliance with the law. Case closed.
But Perry wasn’t finished. He hammered Romney again with the charge, even though we now all accepted Mitt’s version of what had happened. Rather than rebut or correct any errors in Romney’s portrayal of the events, he just repeated the charge as if Romney had not answered it. To make matters worse, he tried to out-shout Romney, horning in on his time. Verbally, it was the same kind of move Al Gore made in the debates of 2000 when he menacingly moved over to Bush’s lectern to horn in on his space. Or Rick Lazio tried that same year when he walked over to Hillary’s podium in their Senate race to hand her a letter. A debate no no.
The result is that Perry now is being seen as a bully, a smear artist, a con man, and a dirty fighter. Nixon at his worst. He has amplified and compounded the damage he suffered over the illegal immigration issue with this McCarthyite personal attack.
In a larger sense, Perry is like the concert performer who can’t get it together to do well in a studio. On stage, surrounded by an adoring public and an energized audience, he beams. He gets his energy from his surroundings. But in a studio or a debate room, amid only competitors and journalists, he can’t get any mojo. He doesn’t get energy from confrontation and can’t make his points stick.
If you can’t debate, you can’t win the election against Obama and you shouldn’t be nominated. Now, after four tries, Perry still can’t win a debate. It’s time to move on.