I took a fair amount of grief, or at least puzzlement, in comments (and on twitter) for saying yesterday that Republicans could do a lot worse than Rick Perry (and Mitt Romney, but the comments were all about Perry) and the either would likely be “much better presidents” than George W. Bush. Since I’ve been asked for an explanation, I’ll give one.

Basically, when thinking about who would make a good president, I want to put policy positions to the side. Obviously, a good Republican president is going to pursue and eventually enact quite different policies than a good Democratic president, and I certainly have preferences about those policies. But what I’m talking about in the Perry/Romney/Bush comment, and what I generally talk about here, is about their ability to president (or, how good they are at presidenting).

So what does it take to be good at that, and why do I think Rick Perry would probably be better than Bush? Well, mostly it starts with how low the bar is: Bush, in my view, really was astonishingly bad at it. So that raises the question of what Bush didn’t have. And what I’ve argued is that it comes down to three things: experience in governing; basic interesting in government and public affairs; and, perhaps the trickiest one, ambition. Bush, I’ve argued (see here and here) just didn’t have those things, with terrible consequences.

Rick Perry? He’s a career politician who, as far as I can tell, is as wildly ambitious as any of them. He wants to be President of the United States not because he sobered up one day and decided to go into his dad’s business, but because as a career pol it’s the top of his profession. That’s good; he’s a lot less likely than Bush was to give up on the job, or not care what voters thing. He — like Romney — appears to have little problem adjusting his positions in order to secure political goals. I like that too; true believers worry me a lot, even if I agree with their policy positions. I don’t know that he’s been great at governing, but at least he won’t be dealing for the first time with an aide withholding information in order to avoid looking bad, or a bureaucrat fighting against him by leaking stuff to the press. He should know that he can’t automatically trust people, even close allies he has appointed to their positions.

Would he be particularly good at presidenting?* I don’t have enough information to guess at that, but I’m not really aware of any serious positive signs. I do have some concerns about any Republican at this point, not because of issue positions but just because the party is so dysfunctional that I suspect there are unusual challenges to being a GOP president. But other than that, I don’t really see any particular reason going in to be alarmed about Perry.

*You don’t like my verbification? Sorry, but I’m keeping this one.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.