Rick Perry Debate Gaffe: Why It's so Serious

OPINION

on November 10 2011 4:51 PM

For 53 cringe-inducing seconds on live television on Wednesday night, Rick Perry's brain froze.

It was CNBC's Your Money, Your Vote debate, and the Republican presidential candidates were discussing what parts of the federal government they would cut. Perry turned to U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian who has vowed to drastically reduce the size and scope of government if elected, and tried to tell him that he was equally committed to cutting government.

And I will tell you, it's three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone, Perry said, leaning toward Paul and gesturing emphatically. Commerce, Education and the, uh, what's the third one there? Let's see... Commerce, Education and the, uh, uh...

Mitt Romney suggested the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been a popular punching bag for many of the Republican candidates, and Perry laughed nervously and said, EPA! There you go.

But when moderator John Harwood asked, Seriously? Is the EPA the one you were talking about?, Perry admitted that it wasn't.

No sir, he said. We were talking about the agencies of government -- the EPA needs to be rebuilt, there's no doubt about that, but --

But you can't name the third one? Harwood interrupted.

The third agency of government that I would do away with, Perry said uncomfortably. The Education, the, uh, uh, Commerce, and let's see... I can't. The third one I can't, I'm sorry. Oops.

Later in the debate, he finally remembered and said, By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a while ago. The audience laughed and applauded, but the damage was done.

A Chastened Response

To his credit, Perry took full responsibility for the slip-up and acknowledged how bad it had been. I stepped in it, is what my wife would have said, he told reporters in the post-debate spin room. It was embarrassing. Of course it was.

He even poked fun at himself on his Web site, posting a poll that asked, What part of the federal government would you like to forget about the most? (Of course, he also got in a jab at the Obama administration, writing in a fundraising appeal letter that his brain freeze just goes to show there are too damn many federal agencies.)

He told numerous reporters that he believed voters would move past the gaffe, which his spokesman, Ray Sullivan, called a stumble of style but not substance.

I am hoping that the American people are the type of individuals that understand there are mistakes to be made, but what are you going to get done for us? Perry told Fox News on Thursday. Those people sitting around the dinner table, around the TV last night may not have a job, or are fixing to lose a job because of policies that have been put in place because of these federal agencies that are piling the regulations on.

It is absolutely true that everyone makes mistakes, and in an ideal world, voters would not judge a candidate by one brain freeze. It is sad that we live in a political system in which races are decided by YouTube clips instead of substantive issues -- but we do live in that system.

Besides, Perry's argument that it's just one mistake doesn't hold water when his campaign has been riddled with mistakes.

Part of a Pattern

If Perry had been a front-runner when he blanked onstage, he might have had a better chance of recovering. But seeing as he entered the debate far behind the front-runners and really needed to gain ground, not just remain constant, in order to make a play for the scandal-ridden Herman Cain's front-runner spot, the gaffe is catastrophic, however much he tries to spin it otherwise.

The problem is that, while Perry insists that one error is not going to make or break a campaign, this isn't one error. Rather, it is the latest and most embarrassing error in a pile of errors that have accumulated over the past two months or so, starting with the remark he made during a debate on Sept. 22 -- that the children of illegal immigrants should be eligible for in-state tuition in Texas, and that if anyone disagreed, I don't think you have a heart -- that torpedoed his front-runner status.

If it happened on its own, he may have survived, Tony Fratto, a former White House spokesman under President George W. Bush, told CNBC on Thursday. But there have been a series of gaffes, and this is probably fatal.

Sara Taylor Fagen, a Republican strategist, called it a political death knell for the same reason.

There's just no recovering from a moment like that when you've had such a bad record of debates, she told The New York Times.

Perry needed to show voters that, after his well-publicized stumbles in September, he still had it. Instead, he showed the opposite, and confirmed the negative perceptions that have been hurting his campaign all along.

He was already down in the polls, and one major reason was poor debate performances, plus the loosey-goosey speech video that caused everyone to question whether he was up to the rigors of the campaign, much less the presidency, Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told the International Business Times. So what happens in the CNBC debate? He confirms every criticism with a moment so painful and embarrassing that it is hard to watch, even if you don't like Perry.

It's Not Personal, Except When It Is

It is a painful truth: on the campaign trail, fortunes really are personal. One candidate's minor road bump is another candidate's fatal gaffe.

The thing about political gaffes is that their damage is determined only partly by the gaffe in and of itself, James Poniewozik, a TV critic for Time magazine, wrote on Thursday. What matters more is the kind of gaffe and how it relates to the person who made it.

In other words, this one mistake will be more devastating for Perry than it would have been for, say, Mitt Romney or even Herman Cain.

Perry has been trying valiantly to win back voters, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire, who abandoned him after he stumbled in several previous debates. His shakiness onstage had led many voters to question how prepared he was to be president, as Sabato noted, and he was trying to dispel that perception with all-out advertising campaigns in early voting states.

And then the CNBC debate happened.

A gaffe is most damaging when it feeds into an existing narrative about the candidate, Poniewozik wrote. Perry's existing problem narrative, why sugarcoat it, is that he is too dumb to be president. It may or may not be true or fair; it is a political fact. ... It may not be fair, but it hurt because it happened to him.

An Insurmountable Hole

In coming back from the mistakes he made in late September and early October, Perry needed to follow Denis Healey's first rule of holes: when you're in one, stop digging.

But he just dug himself deeper, and it seems all but impossible for him to climb out of this one.

Politicians make gaffes all the time, and most blow over. But Perry's was like Bill Buckner letting the winning hit roll between his legs in the 1986 World Series: objectively understandable, but subjectively unforgivable.

Even Republicans who back him are just shaking their heads, Sabato said. It's not as though he can turn into Cicero before the next debate on Saturday. Yes, he's made all the morning talk shows, and he is making jokes about the goof ... [and] it is better to be laughing with him than at him. But this is an embarrassing apology tour, and it just underlines his problem: he's been written off as a serious candidate by millions. I'm not sure there's anything he can do to get them back.

Sabato said that if Perry did manage to recover, it would be a miracle along the lines of Richard Nixon winning the presidency in 1968 after losing to John F. Kennedy in 1960.

His resurrection would be the equivalent of Nixon's, and it took Nixon eight years to achieve it, he said.

A quarter-century after Buckner cost the Red Sox the World Series, fans in Boston still haven't entirely forgiven him, and it doesn't seem like Perry will fare much better. But unlike Buckner, he won't be hated -- he will just be forgotten.

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