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Coward Ads Don’t Beat A Cowboy Image

The most recent ad from Back to Basics implicitly highlights White's weaknesses
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Cowboy mythology is a big part of Texas—not to mention Texas politics. It’s why I paid so damn much for boots that give me blisters,  and why men in suits still cling to their Stetsons. It’s also probably why people paid so much attention the anti-Perry ad that went out Tuesday in 24 state newspapers, sponsored by the Back to Basics political action committee. The ad features a giant black background with a black and white Rick Perry from the waist up staring out from the darkness. Underneath, in giant, all-caps, it simply reads “Coward.”

And them’s not the only fighting’ words. Below the central image, the ad features a long list of Perry’s policy crimes and misdemeanors. “Tell Rick Perry to stop cowering and face Texans like a man,” the ad says. I’m surprised it doesn’t say the candidates should meet at high noon.

The rhetorical volley excited some people. Calling him a coward is big news—not to mention that it breaks an unwritten rule of campaigning. By law, the PAC must operate independently and without coordination with the White campaign, but it’s been a noisy anti-Perry voice, funded largely by Houston trial lawyer and major Democratic donor Steve Mostyn. Wayne Slater of The Dallas Morning News noted that “The swaggering tone of the newspaper ad marks an escalation of the political rhetoric in the gubernatorial contest.” According to Slater, the ad gives voters “their strongest sense yet of the direction of the rock ‘em, sock ‘em campaign.”

At the blog Brains and Eggs, Perry Dorrell described the it as “more gratifyingly confrontational” than the Democrats’ previous Rick Chicken Perry efforts. Unlike the “chicken” approach, this line of attack implicitly features Bill White as the real “brave man” for wanting to debate. The man-in-black-in-khakis.

The goal, of course, is to shame Perry into debating White and poke some holes in his Marlboro Man packaging. Perry initially said he would not debate because Bill White had not released his tax returns from his time as mayor, state party chair and as a deputy energy secretary in the Clinton administration. Once White produced the returns from his time as mayor, Perry said White would still have to produce the others if he wanted to debate between them.

Newspapers, from The Dallas Morning News to Bryan College-Station’s The Eagle, have heartily criticized the governor for his refusal to debate, and Politifact Texas has given him a “Pants on Fire” rating for claiming that it was White refusing the forum. If Perry persists, this will be the first time in 20 years that Texas voters haven’t seen the candidates go head-to-head for the cameras. That would, I think we can all agree, be loss to voters. Watching the candidates answer tough questions helps us see just how much they know. We see where they’re confident and where they hedge. Put simply, debates are help voters get informed.

That doesn’t mean this particular ad was a good idea. While it’s challenging Perry to a showdown, the whole thing seems to draw attention to the decidedly un-cowboy-ness of Bill White. Only one day before the ad came out, Rasmussen published its most recent poll, showing Bill White with 41 percent—eight percentage points below Perry. Even seen in the absolute best light for White, Democrats have an incredibly tough road ahead. Breaking decorum to call Perry a coward when your team is so far behind feels a bit like the desperate name calling. The Houston Chronicle refused to run the ad because of the “Coward” proclamation.

One old-time Democrat, not wanting to be named, agreed with the Chronicle’s assessment. “You don’t call people a liar and you don’t call people a coward,” he told me wryly. “You make them look like a liar or you make them look like a coward.”

Instead, this ad seems to highlight the issue of “manliness” in the campaign—and that’s an issue Perry owns. White can campaign on out-smarting Perry and he can campaign on out-working him. But there is no way he can “out-man” him. This is the governor who claims (and is believed by some) to have shot a coyote while jogging. When the ad tells Perry to be “a man,” it rings more of bravado than bravery. Even with almost no mention of Bill White, the ad seems to highlight his weakness.

The Democrats are at their strongest when they challenge Perry on White’s terms—White’s aw-shucks, no-frills nerdiness can be an asset or a detriment depending on the situation. When they attack Perry on White’s strengths, like education policy or good government rhetoric, the Democrats make a case for themselves. For instance, an early ad from the White campaign, featuring a cartoon Perry using a NASCAR car to distract voters from the dropout rate, remains one of their strongest because White’s demeanor reads as competent, not dorky, compared to a glitzy Perry trying to shrug off a dismal dropout rate. Rather than challenging Perry’s machismo, the Dems need to challenge his competence.

Perry will always win the manly cowboy fight, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the guy you want in charge. White can play a great Doc Holliday—a smart, competent figure who doesn’t need the limelight to solve problems. He’s the one you can trust to make decisions while those cowboy hooligans are outside challenging each other to duels and shooting up the town.