It's not just that Rick Perry screwed up in a debate. He is asking supporters to invest millions of dollars in his campaign. When savvy big donors have their phones in their hands about to send the money, they're all asking themselves the presidential timber question:
Has he got the stuff?
I've been working on a Perry story for what seems to me like a very long time. For that effort I interviewed Terry Sullivan (see correction below), a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina and executive director of a thing called the White House Transition Project, a nonpartisan group that gathers practical information from outgoing White House staffs after a regime change and puts it in a book for the staff of the incoming new regime.
"One of the things that we do is develop something called institutional memory for the White House," Sullivan told me. "So we interview all the people who have held the senior positions in the White House."
We were talking a month ago, right after Perry had already committed his first big gaffe, suggesting that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke was "treasonous" and that people in Texas would "treat him pretty ugly," which sounded uncomfortably like a threat to beat him up, figuratively or literally -- pretty bad possibilities either way.
Sullivan pointed out that Bernanke's position in the scheme of things is extremely important to politics but also very important to The Money -- everybody in the world who's got some. Perry's remarks went everywhere instantly and gave lots of powerful people the willies.
"It's the kind of thing that presidents and people who want to be president simply cannot do," he said.
Sullivan gave me an example from the White House Transition Project that spoke presciently to Perry's more recent debate debacle and the resulting willies among wealthy backers. He described an exchange with a former Democratic deputy presidential spokesperson, whom he did not name, interviewed by the project after the spokesperson's regime had left the White House.
Sullivan told me: "He said, 'You know, I used to be the spokesperson for the speaker of the House of Representatives, the No. 2 guy in the American government, and reporters listened to me in paragraphs. I could say stuff and change my mind and edit it on the fly, and reporters were perfectly happy to let me do that.
"'Then I became deputy press secretary for the president, and people listened to me in syllables.'"
Sullivan's point was that every single discernible sound uttered by a spokesperson for the president, let alone the president himself, is seized and scoured for faults like a diamond in a jeweler's magnifying loupe. He said the former spokesman told him: "'There was nothing I could say that didn't go around the world at the speed of light.'"
That's why there are willies about Perry and his stumble-mouth tendencies. Sullivan said, "To be presidential, you have to understand that dynamic. This is something that I don't think Governor Perry appreciates."
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Sullivan said something that I heard echoed by a number of people who have observed Governor Perry at close quarters. They all say, for better or for worse, he's still got the old A&M yell leader in him. He loves to make that crowd roar.
"He's used to saying off-the-cuff crazy-ass stuff, like seceding from the union and things like that that get him applause lines," Sullivan said. "He's used to applause lines.
"That's a huge danger in the president."
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Sullivan as the head of U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison's campaign against Perry for governor in 2010. In fact, the Terry Sullivan who worked for Hutchison is a different guy and is now employed as deputy chief of staff for Florida Senator Marco Rubio. We apologize for the error.