The Big Oops

How Rick Perry killed what was left of his campaign at the Republican presidential debate in Michigan.

Rick Perry
Rick Perry’s campaign is unliklely to recover from his self-inflicted wounds Wednesday at the Republican presidential debate in Rochester, Mich.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

ROCHESTER, Mich.—Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. Born in a South Carolina hotel ballroom on Aug. 13, it died on the campus of Oakland University on Nov. 9, with CNBC’s debate moderators unable to avert their eyes. The cause of death: self-inflicted injury, brought on by amnesia.

The Perry campaign had always been sickly. But for a little while no one wanted to diagnose it. A Politico front-pager about whether Perry was “dumb”? Cheap “name-calling,” according to Fox News. The candidate calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme?” If you didn’t like that, you had a problem with straight talk and honesty and, probably, cojones. Reporters dutifully filed stories about Perry’s donor-friendly contracting, about the bogusness of his “Texas miracle.” The campaign pretended that the media didn’t exist.

It couldn’t last, because eventually, voters had to hear from Rick Perry. No amount of expectations-lowering guff—and Perry had exhausted the North American supply of it—could have saved him from what happened when he tried to name three abolishable Cabinet departments. He was repeating something he says at every major campaign stop, and yet he couldn’t remember it.

“It is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone,” he said. “Commerce, Education, and the—What’s the third one there? Let’s see.” After Ron Paul and moderator John Harwood failed to bail him out, he simply said, “Oops.” After the debate was over, Perry himself entered the media spin room for the first time. The rule about spin rooms: Front-runners don’t bother with them. In a panic, you forget rules like that.

“I tell you what,” said Perry to the gawking mob. “I named two more agencies of government than what the, uh, uh, current administration has talked about getting rid of.” He juiced this with a new, hideous talking point: “I may have forgotten Energy, but I haven’t forgotten my conservative principles.”

Reporters wouldn’t leave him alone, asking him again and again how he felt.

“I stepped in it, man!” said Perry. “Yeah, it was embarrassing! Of course it was!”

A few steps away, Mitt Romney’s spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom was looking for ways to shiv Perry without noticeable traces of blood. He found one.

“There’s nothing I could say that could darken the night Rick Perry had.”

True. All of those hours of fundraising, all of those one-engine flights to rural Iowa, all of that delicate flag placement at big speeches, and the fate of presidential campaigns comes down to stuff like this. Tim Pawlenty never recovered after he debuted the buzzword “Obamneycare,” then faced Mitt Romney in a debate and declined to use it. Perry was already perceived as a how’d-he-get-this-far bantamweight. He’ll never be perceived as anything else.

In a moment of pure media frenzy like this, in the hours before the Perry meltdown clip is repeated more times on cable news than footage of a cat playing a keyboard, we can forget that there’s a whole presidential campaign out there. Twenty-four hours ago, the press was distracted by the tribulations and incoherence of another man who won’t be president: Herman Cain. His problems ended (temporarily, pending the next accuser’s press conference) only 15 minutes into the CNBC debate. Maria Bartiromo tried to ask Cain about his unending sexual harassment scandal. The crowd of Republicans, diehards who’d had to work for their seats, booed her for her audacity.

“You know that shareholders are reluctant to hire a CEO where there are character issues,” said Bartiromo. “Why should the American people hire a president if they feel there are character issues?”

“The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations,” said Cain.

He was drowned out by applause. It didn’t even matter that Cain had conflated “unfounded accusations” with the facts of his case—a $35,000 harassment settlement, a $45,000 harassment settlement, two accusers who’ve allowed the media to report their names.

Meanwhile, wasn’t there supposed to be some sort of economic debate going on? There sure was. With one exception, those exchanges were even less insightful than the tabloid answers.

They were at least fair. No candidate was singled out for a grilling on economics. Everyone got the same sorts of specific questions and answered with the same formula:

1) The problem was caused by someone else.
2) It can be fixed.
3) Oh, did you want me to say how?

Cain, the evening’s big escapee, was also its master of meaningless answers. He dodged a question on whether the United States should bail out Italy until he was finally pushed toward a “no” answer. “There’s not a lot that the United States can directly do for Italy right now,” he said, “because they have—they’re really way beyond the point of return that we—we as the United States can save them.” He would expand on that philosophy: “You don’t start solving a problem right in the middle of it.”

This was Cain being Cain, but it was a popular sort of answer. Newt Gingrich, who has re-won his reputation as the candidate of ideas by speaking clearly and saying nonsensical things (like “firing” Ben Bernanke, who has his job until his term is up), rejected the premise of most questions. He preferred to build a little diorama in which conservative ideas would have been tried first, and obviously worked. Tax cuts work because there were “lower taxes” during his speakership. (Taxes were actually higher then than they are now.) There is no war between the 1 percent and 99 percent, because, once upon a time “Bill Gates drops out of college to found Microsoft.” (Gates was the prep-schooled son of wealthy parents.) Gingrich’s points didn’t actually hold up, but he enunciated them, and he stayed close to laissez faire doctrine. He survived.

Romney survived for the same reason. As he’s done in the last few debates, he positioned himself just far enough from the rest of the field to avoid adopting some heartless policy for the general election. He would save Medicare, because it’s a program “for the poor.” He wouldn’t flatten taxes, because the middle class has been “hurt the most.” Lots there for conservatives to dislike, but Romney cut the damage by endorsing their views of why America was in decline. The solution to the crisis was doing “the opposite” of Barack Obama.

“The reason we have the housing crises we have is that the federal government played too heavy a role in our markets,” he said. “The federal government came in with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and Barney Frank and Chris Dodd told banks they had to give loans to people who couldn’t afford to pay them back.”

That was his pocket history of the financial crisis—caused by liberals, maybe sort of fixable. But he didn’t slip up when he said it. As the anti-Romney faction of the party buries another would-be-hero, that’s how the Massachusetts heretic survives.