Rick Perry’s uncourageous presidential announcement


Texas Governor Rick Perry will announce his presidential candidacy on Saturday, the same day as the Iowa Straw Poll. (LEE CELANO/REUTERS)

The timing is obviously more than a little coincidental. The third debate of the 2011 GOP campaign—and arguably, the most important one yet—was held Thursday night in Iowa. The Iowa Straw Poll will be held on Saturday, and Perry won’t be on the ballot.

The one-time Democrat’s decision to wait to formally announce his candidacy until Saturday may be smart strategy. He doesn’t run the risk of performing poorly in the straw poll, which is seen as the first major test for Republican primary candidates. In the process, he manages to pull attention away from those likely to be his biggest rivals on what may be their biggest news day yet. And he avoided the war of words between the not-yet-thinned field of candidates in Thursday night’s debate.

But even if it’s wise political maneuvering, I wouldn’t call it courageous leadership. Not because he’s skipping out on the Ames poll, which strikes me as a sideshow that’s given more weight than it should. Political candidates pay to bus in supporters from all over the state, and Mitt Romney, the apparent frontrunner, isn’t even competing.

Rather, skipping out on a key early debate strips voters of a chance to know where you stand, how you compare and what you believe. (He apparently has skipped debates and refused to sit for interviews with editorial boards, writes the Post’s Dan Balz.) There will be plenty more, of course, and the setting is often as much about political showmanship as it is about actual substance. But in political campaigns driven by media sound bites and 30-second attack ads, televised debates are one of the few opportunities voters get to hear from potential leaders of the free world at any length.

It’s not as if Perry wouldn’t have had plenty of arguments to make and past accomplishments to tout. His record on job creation in Texas, as controversial as it may be, gives him a formidable platform from which to criticize President Obama. His day-long prayer event and far-right stances on abortion and same-sex marriage give him authentic credibility with the party’s religious base. And he has never, it should be noted, lost an election. 

The single biggest problem facing our country is not the economy, the wars in the Middle East, or the long-term deficit, though undoubtedly they are all major issues. It is the fact that everyone in Washington seems to be playing games and making political maneuvers that benefit their parties and their own careers, with little worry about its effect on the common good. If we actually had people in leadership who could put those games aside, we might be able to solve the other problems we face.

Granted, opting out of a debate so your announcement makes the biggest splash is small potatoes, especially considering the brinksmanship we just endured. They are each political games, if worlds away from each other. Still, it would be refreshing to see someone announce they are running for president not because the big backers are finally in place, or because it’s a news day when they can make their opponents look bad, but because they are so passionate about what they want to do and so filled with ideas about what to change that they can’t wait to get out there to tell people about it. An extremely naïve point of view in today’s world, to be sure. But surely one we could use a little more of from our leaders.

More from On Leadership:

Paul O’Neill: Only the president can restart America’s engine

Bill George:Enough talk about jobs—where’s the action?

Michael Useem: Revising investor capitalism’s mantra

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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