It was a nightmare moment for Texas Gov. Rick Perry that may have irreparably damaged his presidential candidacy. But similar incidents have happened before, and some candidates recovered and some didn't. What's clear is that Perry's brain freeze at last night's GOP debate will put him in the highlight reel of the all-time worst gaffes in the history of political debates.
What caused all the fuss, and prompted a wave of ridicule, was Perry's inability to remember the third federal department that he has promised to terminate if he becomes president. The moment was especially harmful because it reinforced two of Perry's perceived vulnerabilities—that he is an intellectual lightweight who can't handle the complexities of the nation's highest office, and that he couldn't deal effectively one on one with President Obama, a master debater.
Perry got into trouble when he forgot a key punch line. He turned to fellow candidate Ron Paul, who was standing beside him, and declared dramatically "Its three agencies of government when I get there that are gone—Commerce, Education, and the, uh, what's the third one there? Let's see."
Moderator John Harwood asked if he could remember the third, and Perry tried again. "I would do away with Education, uh, the, uh, Commerce, and, let's see." Fumbling through notes, he added: "I can't. The third one, I can't, sorry. Oops."
After a few more rounds of questioning, Perry said, "By the way, that was the Department of Energy I was reaching for a moment ago." But at that point, the damage was done.
His memory lapse has been replayed endlessly on cable television and was the lead in many newspaper stories this morning.
Some compared it to past gaffes that were particularly devastating, such as President Gerald Ford's misstatement, in a 1976 debate, that Eastern Europe was not dominated by the Soviet Union. Ford went on to lose the election to Jimmy Carter.
Perry's gaffe also brought to mind independent candidate James Stockdale's meandering opening statement in a 1992 vice presidential debate in which he asked, "Who am I? Why am I here?"
Stockdale's ticket, with Ross Perot, also lost but apparently the strange behavior by Stockdale, a Vietnam war hero, apparently didn't have much to do with it.
There was Vice President Dan Quayle's self immolation when he compared himself favorably with President John F. Kennedy in a 1988 vice presidential debate with Democratic challenger Lloyd Bentsen. Quayle did himself lasting harm wth his deer-in-the-headlights reaction to Bentsen's put-down, but Quayle's ticket with George H.W. Bush won the election anyway.
On a more serious level was Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis's overly detached reply when asked in a 1988 debate if he would favor the death penalty for someone who raped and killed his wife Kitty. Dukakis said he opposed capital punishment but his cerebral answer reinforced public impressions that he was a bloodless technocrat. Dukakis lost the electiion.
Perry had flirted with the idea of passing up some debates after a series of weak performances in recent weeks. But he went ahead with last night's encounter in Michigan, hoping to recover. Instead, he made matters worse.
Beyond Perry's gaffe, the debate was basically a civil and serious affair in which the candidates made little or no news. By and large, the debate focused the discussion of complicated economic issues, including China's trade practices, the current European economic crisis, and detailed explanations of conservative economic theories.
The candidates stayed true to form. For example, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts was steady, poised and knowledgeable. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was feisty, professorial, and critical of the news media. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas stuck to his libertarian principles. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota concisely described her brand of vigorous conservatism.
Businessman Herman Cain defended himself against allegations of sexual misbehavior. As a moderator asked him a question on the topic, members of the audience began to boo, apparently reacting negatively to the question itself. Cain said the much-publicized allegations are completely false.
But he got himself into trouble when he referred dismissively to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as "Princess Nancy." He was asked by a CNBC reporter afterward if that derogatory remark would offend women, especially since his treatment of women has come under scrutiny. Cain replied, "That was a statement that I probably should not have made."