The Perilous Perry Pattern

by Jonah Goldberg

I just got back from Fox where several people were talking up the fact that Perry is using last night’s gaffe to his “advantage.” Bill Hemmer even asked me about it on air. Apparently Perry is available to any media outlet that wants him today. He was on all the morning TV shows it seems, and he’s doing radio now. He’ll be back on Fox to talk to Megyn Kelly later today. And he’s apparently appearing on the Letterman show tonight.

It’s possible that Perry will get a momentary boost of support as he self-deprecatingly addresses last night’s brain implosion. But there are a couple problems with the idea that this comes anywhere near an advantageous opportunity for him.

First, if it works to candidates’ advantage to have embarrassing meltdowns on stage we’d see it more often. Why not take a big swig from a glass of milk before every tough question on the Euro or housing policy so you can explode it out of your nose before answering? That way you can get all kinds of free media the next day!

Second, I think people in some ways are letting Perry off easy precisely because this “gaffe” was so egregious (we’ve all frozen up in front of audiences before. I think I can remember every time it’s happened to me with excruciating accuracy). People naturally want to take a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I position on something like this. In other words, if it was less horrible he might be getting more grief. But put aside the queasy awkwardness of the moment for a second. Perry couldn’t remember that he wants to shut down the Department of Energy!? For weeks, energy reform was the only substantive policy he’d put forward. Energy is still one of the only topics he can discuss with anything approaching fluency. But he couldn’t remember he wanted to shut down DOE? It’d be more understandable if he forgot the Department of Commerce — people forget the existence of the Commerce Department all of the time.

Last, and this is a point a lot of people are making, but it’s an important one. His performance last night confirmed — with an exclamation point — the negative narrative of his entire campaign. Everyone could forgive Ron Paul if he spaced out on the name of a cabinet agency he wanted to shutter, because everyone knows that Ron Paul knows what he knows and has no problem explaining himself under normal circumstances. People are much more unsure about Perry and he compounded that uncertainty last night. It’s fine to say everyone has these bad moments. That’s true. Everyone makes mistakes. What you look for are patterns. Last night was so deadly because Perry reinforced his pattern rather than deviated from it. And he was already on borrowed time.