Does Rick Perry Have Fire in His Belly?

How could The Washington Post possibly know?

Other than the continuing gravity-defying nature of Herman Cain’s book tour run for president, the big horse race story of the moment is Rick Perry’s precipitous fall from atop the polls.
In a recent article, The Washington Post proffers one explanation for Perry’s slide: he’s just not that interested in becoming president.

There’s something slightly absurd about the premise of the piece, in that it revolves around something—Perry’s “true” motivation—that is more or less unknowable, perhaps even to Perry himself. Still, the subject is important. As the poli-sci blogger Jonathan Bernstein (who sees Perry as a typical, insanely ambitious pol) has persuasively argued, wild ambition is something we want in a president. An unambitious president is someone who is unlikely to care much what voters think, is indifferent to his or her legacy, and so is inclined to give up on the job when the rigors and stresses inevitably mount. To this school of thought, as modern presidents go, George W. Bush was as unambitious as they come, and he was a disaster. So if there actually is reason to think Perry doesn’t want the job, it would be useful for journalists to tell us that.

But the Post article contains some red flags that suggest it should not be taken seriously. Consider this slice of pop sociology:

Like everything else about running for president, the “fire in the belly” test is tricky. Voters tend to like candidates who want it enough to work for it—Bush, for example, came in for some of the same criticism as Perry, ridiculed for keeping a relatively light campaign schedule and traveling with his pillow. But they don’t like it when candidates are so openly ambitious that they come off as willing to do anything to win—John McCain 2.0 was accused of this—or when they appear to be just plain desperate, as Al Gore was accused of being.

Is this true? Maybe—it sounds true, or at least it sounds plausible. But how would we know if it were? What’s the basis for the claim about what voters “like,” or even what they “tend to like”?

Maybe substantial swathes of the electorate really do come to independent conclusions about how badly the candidates “want it,” and, like Goldilocks, they prefer pols with juuuust the right amount of “fire in the belly.” Personally, I’m partial to an account in which chattering class-types, political rivals, and even “neutral” reporters compete to slot the candidates into pre-cast roles (off-putting goo-goo striver; craven flip-flopper; lazy heir), and then voters who are predisposed not to like a given politician latch onto these characterizations (which may, in some cases, be apt) to justify and reinforce their opinions.

And actually, I think that account is consistent with the very existence of this Post story (see especially Bush adviser Mark McKinnon’s digs at Perry at the end, and the Post’s eager publication of those comments). Still, it’s just a theory; I don’t have enough support for it to present it as a declaration of fact in a newspaper article. But by the same token, I’m not sure what grounds the Post has to present its theory about what voters like—which is hardly indisputable, and for which it offers scant evidence—as fact.

This same blithe self-assurance about how politics “works” pops up in a different context later in the article, where it seems similarly unwarranted. Here’s Post reporter Melinda Henneberger debating campaign strategy with Perry spokesman Mark Miner:

With Romney on a roll, Perry can’t afford to hang back while every other candidate scores points. It is not an exaggeration to say that comedian Jon Stewart has gone after Romney’s flip-flops harder than Perry has. And with $17 million in his campaign coffers, why aren’t the ads making Romney look scary on the air already?

“We’re going to spend our money efficiently and prudently at the appropriate time,’’ Miner said.

Wouldn’t that be now?

“We’re not going to go into it, but we’ll use all available resources.”

In this case, there actually is data to bring to bear, though the Post article doesn’t acknowledge it. In his e-book on Perry’s “egghead”-advised campaigns in Texas, Sasha Issenberg reports that one of the academics’ findings is that political ads on TV do influence voters—but that the effect quickly fades. The obvious implication is that campaigns should marshal their resources for the period just before votes are actually cast. Issenberg presents Dave Carney, Perry’s long-time adviser, as being obsessed with not wasting money by trying to respond to the media narrative of the day or transitory movement in the polls.

Now, maybe the eggheads got it wrong. Or maybe their findings don’t apply to a series of primaries across the nation. Or maybe Perry will turn out to be such a weak candidate that the marginal gain from an improved ad strategy won’t matter. As someone who’s fretted about the prospect of research-informed campaigns outgunning the press, I’d be comforted to learn that Perry’s team doesn’t know as much as they think they know.

But in light of Issenberg’s reporting, there’s every reason to think that the Perry campaign’s slow start on ad spending is the product of a deliberate strategy—which means that it’s not evidence of Perry’s lack of “fire in the belly.”

Which means, in turn, that while it may be useful to ask how ambitious Perry really is, this article doesn’t go far toward providing an answer.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.