You can tell that Rick Perry’s stock has dropped since his well-publicized gaffe last week, because now he has to hang out with bottom-tier Republican candidates. CBS News has released this oddly compelling video of Perry broing down with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul prior to Sunday night’s foreign policy debate, as Newt Gingrich waits aloof in the background. Newt Gingrich is potentially too presidential for Rick Perry now. It’s like when the captain of your high school drill team is disfigured in an accident* and learns to be a better person, except Perry is probably not learning. His exchange with Paul and Santorum is remarkably instructive for us, though, as it offers a rare chance to evaluate these men as people rather than as political marketing constructs. The result is weirdly touching. Props to Pete for the link, and video after the jump.
First of all, don’t be like Rick Santorum. Forget running for President—that guy could alienate people driving an ice cream truck through hell. When Perry reaches out to him, Santorum immediately responds by saying something weird and vaguely gay. The exchange starts around :23 and goes like this:
Perry: I’m right behind Rick. Got your back, sir!
Perry: How are you?
Santorum: [simultaneously] I got your front.
Perry: [face stops moving, quiet] Good to see you.
See, Rick Santorum, that’s why no one came to your birthday party—every guest worried that he was the only person you invited. But this video is more than a document of Santorum offering to play 69th trombone in the Rick & Rick Orchestra. It is also a testament to Perry’s amazing social facility. Even after he loses the GOP nomination and the governorship of Texas and possibly his job at the car lot, Rick Perry will be able to survive on charm. Once he’s done executing an extremely awkward high five at the :41 mark, Perry launches into an anecdote that A) allows everyone to ignore that Santorum has started talking again and B) deploys a classic likability strategy.
One way to make people like you in a potentially difficult social situation is to tell a story that makes somebody else look good. An easy way to do this is to repeat something funny that another person said, as Perry does with his story about Ron Paul’s zinger from last week’s debate. Perry explains that, after he forgot which government agency he wanted to eliminate on national television, Paul leaned over to him and said, “That’s happened to everybody; most of us just haven’t done it in front of four million people.” It’s a real alpha move on Perry’s part. Relating the anecdote allows him to A) regain control of the conversation and be funny, while also B) defusing any impression of conceit with self-deprecation and C) implying to both men that Rick Perry speaks well of people when they’re not around.
He probably doesn’t. It so happens that Perry’s story about how funny Ron Paul is also allows him to take control of a dangerously formless social situation, much like his approach to Paul and John Huntsman from :06–:14. When Perry arrives, the two 1-percenters appear to have been standing next to each other without speaking for an indefinite period of time. “Big John,” Perry says to the slightly shorter Huntsman, before seizing his hand and launching into a discourse about the color of their ties and Texas A&M. It’s a disquisition he abandons immediately when one of the sound techs offers him his microphone. Awkward interaction prevented.
All this is learned behavior, and it suggests why Perry has had such a successful career. Who knows what Ron Paul and John Huntsman talked about before lapsing into silent contemplation in that basement in New Jersey, but I bet they were relieved when Rick Perry walked in. It’s kind of like the way registered Republicans were relieved when he joined the race. Say what you will about him—go on, he won’t remember—but Perry is a man who makes people feel comfortable. When others are paralyzed by awkwardness and fear, he takes the reins and drives the carriage of social interaction along a pleasant route.
Then he jumps out and fucks a pig. Even that is oddly reassuring, though, since you are not the one doing it. Ron Paul has forgotten his own political opinions, too, just not in front of a bunch of people. The other thing he hasn’t done in front of a bunch of people is tell a funny story that makes everyone feel good. Like Santorum and Huntsman and Newt Gingrich, he is a beta male, and people standing around talking in groups are not happy to see him. Rick Perry, on the other hand, is a hero at cocktail parties. He makes social interactions go okay. I nominate him for chairman of the keg committee and possibly comptroller of getting nerds laid. Don’t make him President of the United States, though.