Yes, Rick Perry seriously hastened the demise of his campaign last night. Yes, it was one of the most uncomfortable TV moments since Tom Cruise assaulted Oprah’s couch, and definitely the worst debate fumble in recent memory. But some commentators have been unfair about the cause of Perry’s gaffe.
“Ultimately, Rick Perry is going to be remembered as the man too stupid to win this Republican nomination,” wrote Jonathan Chait last night.
Maybe. But stupidity wasn’t responsible for Perry’s blunder. There are more stupid politicians out there than Perry (some may have even shared the stage with him last night) who would have never made his error. The problem was how he handled himself under pressure when his mind went blank. Here’s the transcript, via the Playbook:
RON PAUL, at podium on Perry’s left: “You need five.”
PERRY: “Oh, five, OK. So Commerce, Education, and , uh, the, um, uh, uh …”
RON PAUL: “EPA?”
PERRY: “EPA, there you go.” (LAUGHTER) (APPLAUSE)
CO-MODERATOR JOHN HARWOOD: “Seriously, is the EPA the one you were talking about?”
PERRY: “No sir, no sir. We were talking about the agencies of government — the EPA needs to be rebuilt. There’s no doubt about that.”
HARWOOD: “But you can’t — but you can’t name the third one?”
PERRY: “The third agency of government I would — I would do away with, the Education, uh, the uh…”
SOMEONE THROWS A LIFELINE: “Commerce.”
PERRY: “Commerce and, let’s see. I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”
A presidential contender forgetting the name of an agency he wants to cut is pretty awful, but momentary memory lapses happen. But as you can see, there were so many escape hatches that other politicians – smoother communicators – would have taken. Perry should have dropped the issue when Paul gave him a chance, moved on, changed the subject and tried to recover. Instead, he stood onstage for almost a full, excruciating minute, fumbling for an answer that never came to him.
If all Perry lacked was substance, he might still be polling in the double digits right now. Look at Herman Cain. Perry’s big problem is that he also lacks style. And in today’s media and political culture, that’s unforgivable.