Perry and Romney’s First Face-Off

On the Republican presidential side, things are winnowing down and speeding up. There will be five debates between now and Oct. 18, starting next Wednesday at the Reagan Library. The vetting is in high gear. Previous debates put Michele Bachmann on the map, did in Tim Pawlenty, and showed Mitt Romney had improved as a candidate since 2008.

Wednesday’s debate will be all about the current front-runner versus the former front-runner. Rick Perry will be the object of all eyes. He’s new, it’s his debate debut. He has to show he’s not a two-week wonder, his appeal is not overblown, he’s a formidable presence. The amazing thing about his rise is not that he’s become the front-runner, but that he’s zoomed to the top with such comfortable and sudden margins. Public Policy Polling last week had Mr. Perry at 33% to Mr. Romney’s 16%. CNN this week has Mr. Perry at 27% to 14% for Mr. Romney. What’s it about? Mr. Perry has to start convincing a broad Republican audience that it’s about his excellence and electability.

Mr. Romney has to regain his footing. Up to now in debates he has pretty much coasted—he’s big, radiant and smiling, the others were small, yappy and querulous. He can continue that way, as if he’s unruffled by an Austin interloper who’ll do himself in with his mouth or get done in by good oppo. Or he can conclude that new circumstances dictate new strategies, and fight. He ought to be looking to slow Mr. Perry’s momentum, to ding him and dent him, to get people raising a skeptical brow.

On Wednesday night they may wind up looking like two boxers circling each other in the ring and looking for an opening. Mr. Perry, about now, may be wondering if he should mention Mr. Romney’s Massachusetts health-care plan. Will that pack a punch, or is it old hat? Just in case, Mr. Romney will be formulating an answer: “I know health care is on your mind because I read the other day how you praised Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan. You called it ‘most commendable.’ You were still a Democrat then, right? Or were you a Republican when you praised HillaryCare?”

It will all be light taps and feints, decorous and dignified, but if ever two candidates saw each other as Exactly the Kind of Guy I Don’t Like, it would be Messrs. Perry and Romney. Mr. Romney’s people see Mr. Perry as a dopey Texas barbarian. Mr. Perry’s people see Mr. Romney as Northeastern, elite, effete and opportunistic. If they go head to head through the fall and winter, their contest could wind up looking like a scene in “Raging Bull.” “I’ll wipe that smile off your face, pretty boy. I’ll do what Jake LaMotta did to Marcel Cedan, I’ll barely break a sweat and you’ll be in the corner screaming at your valet, ‘Cut me, George, cut me!’”

*   *   *

The night after the debate, President Obama will outline his long-awaited—too-long-awaited—jobs plan. The speech will have to be very good not to be called very bad. The White House has talked about it too much for too long and built expectations too high. They’ve put too much weight on the back of a single address. The good news is that few may be listening. The bad news is that’s because “Obama Is About to Solve Our Problems” is not a compelling headline in a country that is starting to think “Obama Is Our Problem.”

The real challenge for the speech is the collapse of trust in the president’s economic leadership. There are any number of ways to illustrate this. Here is a CNN poll: 65% of respondents disapprove of how he is handling the economy, 34% approve.

The president’s problem is that shortly after he was sworn in, the size and severity of the recession became apparent, and from that moment he did not do things that the majority of the American electorate, in hindsight, would say were helpful. And that’s the problem with the speech Thursday night, a national mood of, “Nothing personal, but we don’t think you can help in this area.”

What should he do, what approach should he take? His supporters say, “Go big.” I think they mean, “Go left in a big way.” But there’s another way to go big, and it has to do with sharing your actual thoughts.

It would be interesting if the president spoke about how he really, truly sees things right now—how he understands America’s quandary, what caused it, who caused it, why. What the structural problems are, why the Western nations are broke, what we can do about it. How—or if—we can create growth again. How we can balance our books.

This seems obvious and boring, but oddly enough few people know how Mr. Obama really views things, how he sees the big picture. He keeps it to himself, as if he doesn’t want the natives to get restless with too much information. His supporters say he is a pragmatist, a practical progressive. Fine, but what does that mean? At this point he’s in so much trouble he could declare he was a character out of a Clifford Odets play, wave a copy of “Das Kapital,” and shout, “I’ve got the answer!” and it would probably improve his position.

He tends to confine himself to generalizations and platitudes, and he tends to follow them with assertions of support for small measures—a tax credit for the makers of environmentally safe housing, or some money to repair school buildings—that address a little part of an overall problem whose contours and causes he leaves undefined. His legislative affairs people must think small pieces of legislation add up to a large pointillist portrait of political meaning. But they don’t, they just seem like disconnected dots.

The president is addressing a country that, fairly or not, would tell any pollster that he is speaking on the economy next week because of politics. His numbers are down, he’s trying to get back in the game.

But at least the Republicans have a plan. It may or may not be a good plan, it may or may not be enough for the moment, but it’s a plan, and it has emerged as a consensus in the Republicans debates.

Every one of the Republican candidates believes American government has grown too big, too ponderous and inhibiting. They see it as an impediment to growth. They want to cut it back. Every one of them believes regulations are too burdensome. They think our debt and deficits must be reduced. God is in the details, and we’ll see what the details are, but the point is they have a plan.

Mr. Obama’s plan is . . . what? It’s still, after all this time, unclear.

He should go to the meaning of things, to his view of that meaning. He should attempt a new frankness, a new candor, a broad clarity.

The benefits of this approach? He would appear to be thinking, not only calculating. He would seem aware of the big picture, of this moment in history. It might lift him beyond the platitudes and out of the smallness. And who knows, it just might spark the debate we often say we are having, but so far are not, about the size, role, purpose and responsibilities of government. That wouldn’t be bad.