So just where does Rick Perry rank on the list of all-time worst presidential debaters?
Of course, such things are difficult to characterize and are a matter of opinion. With so many candidates having run in their parties’ primaries, lots of politicians have turned in some underwhelming and gaffe-prone debate performances that we may not remember.
But while certain gaffes have been imprinted permanently on our psyche – think Dan Quayle and Rick Lazio – many see the totality of Perry’s performances as distinguishing him, negatively, on the debate stage.
At least one expert on presidential debates says Perry could claim the title of worst debater ever.
“There have been debaters who have had isolated moments as damaging as Perry’s – Ford in ‘76, Reagan in ‘84, Dukakis and Quayle in ‘88, Bush 41 looking at his watch in 1992,” said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “But I honestly cannot think of another candidate as consistently cursed in the debate arena as Rick Perry.”
(To see those moments and more, make sure to check out our recap of the worst debate gaffes in history.)
Schroeder also noted that vice presidential candidates Bob Dole in 1976 and Jack Kemp in 1996 turned in some poor performances. Those performances, of course, weren’t as high-profile as Perry’s because they were vice presidential candidates and there wasn’t such a media echo chamber.
Still another observer compared Perry to Reagan in his 1984 reelection bid.
“When I was watching Rick Perry’s debate performance last night, I kept thinking of Ronald Reagan’s first 1984 general election debate ... where Reagan throughout the debate was halting and seemed confused,” said Mitchell McKinney of the University of Missouri. “It was particularly in Reagan’s closing statement of that debate where he seemed lost and rambling.”
And many pointed to Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, whose most famous debate moment involved him saying, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Another expert pointed to other vice presidential debates and former President Gerald Ford.
“Definitely the worst was Dan Quayle, who walked into the ‘you’re no Jack Kennedy’ line in the debate with Lloyd Bentsen,” said Thomas Hollihan of the University of Southern California. “I think that Bob Dole was pretty awful with his reference to ‘Democrat wars’ that included World War II. Or Gerald Ford who made the Poland gaffe.”
Hollihan said Quayle’s and Ford’s moments were worse than Perry because of their responses. Quayle got angry about Bentsen’s remark, and Ford refused to back down from his contention that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”
Perry, of course, has acknowledged his mistake, even if he handled the flub exceedingly poorly in the debate.
“Insofar as how Perry compared to others, he at least showed a sense of humor and was self-effacing,” said Diana Carlin of St. Louis University. “Others have not laughed it off as he did.”
But the fact that most of the comparisons to the Texas governor’s ‘oops’ moment are to vice presidential candidates speaks poorly for Perry. He’s running for president, and the bar is higher.
And there are lots more debates to come.