Gov. Rick Perry in Republican Debate: Irrelevant But Devastating Gaffe Perfect Storm

–Richard E. Vatz

How bad was Rick Perry’s inability to remember the third federal agency he claimed he would dismantle as president?

It depends: whether you mean “bad” as in ruinous to his chances to be president, or “bad” as in revealing his intellectual insufficiency to be president.

As to the latter, it is simply not relevant. Under the lights, presidential hopefuls can forget things — big things. Have you ever forgotten the name of someone you know well while under the pressure of introducing him or her to an important person?

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But why, you may ask, are not debates littered with people forgetting facts? Even if the candidates have notes, they cannot anticipate all of the particulars they may be called upon to cite at a moment’s notice.

The reason is that there is a multitude of ways a momentary lapse will be hidden or not noticed: you can change the subject or end your thought where you are; your interlocutor or fellow debater may suggest the point or word you have forgotten; or a half dozen other events could intercede to hide the problem.

With Rick Perry, one tiny but consequential rhetorical error he made was to obligate himself to come up with a specific number of specific references: three agencies. Once you do that, the verbal escape hatches diminish precipitately.

Add to that the fact that Rick Perry’s style is an edgy arrogance; that fact reduces competitors’ (not all competitors’) motivation to help him, or anyone’s motive to minimize its importance. For no other candidate would this error have been made as salient.

But its validity is minimal. Forgetting the name of an agency tells you nothing about a person’s ability to be president, and this analysis is from a writer who has soured completely on Gov. Perry. But if your chances to become the presidential nominee have declined and are falling before a dramatic-appearing gaffe, people will use such a gaffe as just one more reason to announce it as the death knell for your candidacy. In addition, if you are not a sympathetic figure, Saturday Night Live and other satirical sources will roast you — just watch.

It is predictable that going forward no major candidate will cite Perry’s verbal problem in the Republican presidential debate as important. To do so draws attention to one’s own gaffes and can also serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Overall on Gov. Perry’s inability to recall the name of a third federal agency he would eliminate: unrevealing regarding his knowledge and leadership, but the final nail in the coffin of his candidacy.

Prof. Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University and is author of the recently released The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion (Kendall Hunt, 2012)

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