Perry’s stumbling shows GOP’s emerging ‘cult of competence’

Rick Perry has had a difficult week. A rambling, uneven performance at the Florida presidential debate 10 days ago has sent the once-orbiting Texas governor plummeting back to the Republican Presidential Peleton — winded, wounded and in need of a political cut man.

For all his travails, Perry is still near the top of recent polls, and his shot at the nomination is still very much within reach. Unless a new candidate from the Jersey Shore (or elsewhere) dives into the race — an increasingly unlikely scenario, that is — it is all but certain that either Perry or Mitt Romney will be the Republican standard bearer next fall.

And since Romney is himself anything but a shoe-in, Perry is still very much in the thick of the hunt, even in spite of a bad last week.

But Perry’s recent foundering is still worthy of contemplation, and for reasons beyond its simple impacts on his position in the polls. Perry’s struggles, ignited entirely by a very bad debate where he seemed to show a loose grip on the nitty-gritty details of governing, speak volumes about the psychology of the typical Republican primary voter, and more to the point, to the overriding value these voters place on root competence.

Yes, Republicans want a conservative with tea-party mojo.

Yes, Republicans want a conservative who can beat Obama.

But just as much, Republicans want a conservative who’s clearly competent to the task of leading our nation away from the dastardly brink of fast-approaching mediocrity.

I call it the “cult of competence,” an emerging trend that is the sworn enemy of the cult of personality that too often dominates our politics. These days, Republicans are itching for someone who believes in core conservative values and someone who can translate those values into an achievable, competent governing strategy.

Gov. Perry’s tough week is evidence of this hard-driving undercurrent, as is the cascading decline of Michelle Bachman after an errant comment or three. The continued clamoring for a wonkish, straightalking Chris Christie and the widespread popularity of national policy geeks like Paul Ryan also speak to this emerging cult of competence in the ranks of the right wing.

Along with basic ideological considerations, this cult of competence has become a prime mover in the minds of Republicans.

That competence matters in selecting the Leader of the Free World shouldn’t be news.

Our politics has become consumed by the cult of personality, and who can blame Team Right Wing for wondering aloud: “Look where that’s got us?”

Who’s got swagger? Who can show Churchillian verve when reading a teleprompter? Who looks different, acts different, seems different than the usual suspects? Who plays the saxaphone, rides a motorcycle, can smash a beer can on his presidential forehead?

The press loves to cover this “People Magazine” under-belly of every major race and, too often, we the people are guilty of forming our own conclusions about whom to vote for based on this bawdy and spotty journalism.

Ergo, the presidency of Barack Obama.

And if conservatives are being honest with themselves, there was a real element of this cause célebre mindset in our mad-dash selection of George W. Bush to be the Republican nominee in 2000, too. The bulk of the party establishment then (from members of Congress to party leaders and prominent commentators) deemed then-Gov. Bush the right man, without knowing a wit about who he really was and whether he was in fact the right man.

But if the early ebb and flow of the 2012 nomination fight is any indicator, that won’t happen again.

Yes, the man or woman who ultimately wrests the Republican nomination will have to pass muster on the authenticity of his or her conservative ideology. That is Mitt Romney’s proving ground over the next several months.

But, equally, the man or woman who wins the nomination will have to also show that he or she is competent to the enormous task of leading a nation with enormous challenges. After a rough debate performance in the sunshine state, this is Rick Perry’s essential task in the days ahead.

Josh Penry is a former Colorado Senate Minority leader and a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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