Tag Archives: Rick Perry debate gaffe

Here’s Rick! The Axe Man Cometh (Not!)

In his New York Times column last Thursday (hat tip to Simon Gerlin for bringing it to my attention)  Matt Bai implicitly agrees with the somewhat unconventional argument that I’ve been making regarding Rick Perry’s debate gaffe , namely, that the mere fact of forgetting the third of the three cabinet departments he would eliminate if elected president will, by itself, have almost no impact on his chances of winning the Republican nomination. Instead, what is hurting Perry is that a sizeable number of Tea Party-sympathizing likely Republican voters who were initially inclined to support Perry now believe, largely on the basis of his debate performances, that he isn’t a genuine conservative. But their disappointment is not rooted in his apparent lack of debating skills – it is based on the unmistakable evidence that Perry, as Governor, embraced decidedly un-conservative policies. In his column, Bai drives home my point by suggesting that Perry’s failure to remember all three departments indicates that he didn’t really have a principled reason for cutting the Department of Energy in the first place.  Instead, it was just one item among a number of conventional Republican-pleasing acts on Perry’s to-do list (tax cuts? Check; eliminate cabinet departments? Check) motivated more by political posturing than conservative principles.

Lacking an underlying rationale for deciding which cabinet departments to cut, Perry had no reason to remember their specific names. (Heck, he’s lucky to have recalled two of them!) To be sure, the ostensible reason for eliminating cabinet departments is to cut government spending and reduce its size.  But that can be accomplished by cutting any number of departments and agencies.  Why not start with the biggest budget busters, and eliminate the Health and Human Services or Defense departments? How about the Department of Homeland Security? In Perry’s defense, he’s not the only Republican candidate who has failed to articulate a cogent reason for determining which government departments to axe, and why; Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann have all promised to chop down specific parts of the cabinet but except for Paul, it’s hard to remember exactly why they have targeted specific departments, beyond a vague promise to cut spending.

This failure to articulate a rationale for deciding which cabinets to cut raises questions, as Mark Schmitt points out in the New Republic, about just how much money this axe-wielding exercise would actually save.  For example, if Commerce is eliminated, who will carry out the census, which is mandated by the Constitution?  Similarly, it is all well and good to dismantle the Education department, but does that mean the end of all student loan programs too?  In short, which current government programs are these candidates willing to cut, and which do they expect to see transferred to other existing government agencies?  Without specifying the details, it’s not clear whether any money will be saved at all.

My point is not that there is no good reason to cut cabinet departments, or any other government agency, for that matter.  Perry’s problem is that he didn’t explain why he targeted these three departments and, as Bai suggests, his failure to do so is simply additional evidence that he hasn’t developed a cogent set of conservative principles on which to base such decisions.  At least we know that in Ron Paul’s libertarian world view, government ought not to be making student loans, so his promise to eliminate the Department of Education seems genuine.  In contrast, Perry has yet to convince anyone that his candidacy is motivated by more than the opportunity to grab the “I’m not Mitt” mantle.

In this regard, he has much to learn from this man, who at least had a reason for taking an axe to his problems: too much work, not enough play, and a history of “cost-cutting measures” to live up to.

Evaluating Perry’s Chances: Was It Over When the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?

By now almost everyone has heard about or seen what some are calling the worst debate gaffe in history. (It’s not, of course, but never mind.)  I can’t say which I found more amusing – poor Rick Perry’s 50-plus second unsuccessful effort to remember that third government department he is going to eliminate as President (it was the Department of Energy), or the pundits’ immediate pronouncements (see here or here or almost anywhere) that Perry’s campaign is over.  In the end, I think the pundits were probably the more hilarious of the two.  The reality is that if Perry loses this race, it will have almost nothing to do with last night’s debate gaffe, and almost everything to do with fact that his record as Texas governor unsettles conservative activists who are looking for an alternative to Romney.  Try as he might, he simply doesn’t pass the conservatives’ smell test – a fact that has become painfully obvious to anyone watching the debates.  While Perry’s lack of debating skill has been evident for some time, what is really hurting him in these events is what he’s been saying – not how well (or poorly) he’s been saying it.  He jumped into the race and immediately vaulted to the top of the polls on the strength of an impressive jobs record as Texas governor, a fat war chest and the promise that he wasn’t Romney.  But within one debate, he found himself on the defensive over his decision to issue an executive order mandating HPV vaccines for young girls, and for providing undocumented immigrants in-state tuition rates when attending Texas public schools.  He’s been scrambling to regain that initial support ever since. No amount of smooth talking or mastery of debate skills is going to change the fact that Perry’s record is not one that appeals to a true-blue conservative.

The media overreaction to Perry’s gaffe isn’t the first time they’ve written a candidate off, only to be proven wrong.  Earlier this summer, Newt Gingrich saw most of his campaign staff leave, ostensibly because Newt was busy vacationing with his wife rather than throwing himself headlong into the nomination campaign. Newt’s funding dried up, his standing in the polls dropped to the low single digits, and he was skewered in Saturday Night Live skits as the fat guy who didn’t really want to be president.  Although I warned at the time that it was far too early to write off any candidate, and that even though he was a longshot he still had as a good a chance at winning the nomination as any of the other candidates not named Romney, the media declared Newt DOA – a judgment shared by more than one pundit.  Unfortunately for their prognosticative skills, Newt remains very much alive in this race, thanks in no small part to a combination of sterling debate performances and the ability to fly under the media radar (methinks that will be coming to an end soon.)  At this point he has moved into top-tier status nationally based on polling data, with his stock rising in Iowa. Don’t get me wrong – Newt is still a longshot, in large part because he remains underfunded, but the truth is that in a field of 8 candidates, they are all longshots except for Romney.  And yet one of those non-Romney folk is likely to emerge early in the actual voting as the alternative frontrunner.  Newt is not out of this – and neither is Perry.  Like all good candidates, Perry is using humor to defuse the situation. His official campaign website is giving readers the option of selecting what government agency they would most like to forget and Perry will be on Letterman tonight to read a top-ten list that will skewer his debate gaffe.  Although pundits are predicting donors will abandon him, no serious donor would do so based on this highly publicized gaffe alone.  It will take credible evidence of erosion in his support before donor money begins drying up. In any case, Perry has enough money to compete in Iowa and – who knows – he may even see his support rebound if he shows an ability to laugh at himself, and if the media overreaction creates a backlash among Republican voters who aren’t too enamored of the national press already. Newt has shown how to capitalize on Republican voters’ antipathy toward the punditocracy.  Before writing Perry off, let’s see how he reacts to this latest setback.

None of this is likely to change the minds of pundits who delight in pointing to alleged turning points in campaigns – a single event or moment in which an election outcome hung in the balance. In 2004, the purported Democratic frontrunner, Howard Dean, finished a disappointing third in the Iowa caucuses. In an effort to rally the troops, Dean gave a rousing address promising to carry the fight through a succession of primary contests – a speech punctuated with a rebel yell that became an instant you tube sensation.  Pundits point to this as Dean’s Rick Perry moment – a single event that finished his campaign.  In truth, however, Dean’s “I have a Scream” speech had almost no impact on his support – as the Iowa results indicated, he was already in political freefall.  No matter – Dean’s speech is mistakenly viewed by many as a turning point in his campaign.  So it is likely to be with Perry’s debate gaffe.

As with Newt, however, it is too early to count Perry out.  The race is still very fluid. Media efforts to prematurely winnow the field notwithstanding, there’s likely to be at least six candidates in the hunt when the real voting begins in Iowa on January 3.  Until then, we should expect more efforts by the media to declare a candidate’s campaign as all but over.  But, to quote that great political prognosticator Bluto: “Over?!  Nothing’s Over until We Say It Is!”


Consider me your Blutarsky.