Poor Rick Perry: Seriously, How Could This Have Happened?

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Regardless of your age or politics, you had to feel bad for Rick Perry last night, during his humiliating, unbelievable-in-real-time, instant-classic "oops!" moment.

Two hypotheses from readers. First, from a man in New Zealand:

It is hard for anyone over 60 to pile on Perry for the brain constipation on display last night!  It happened to me just yesterday trying to remember the first name of a long time friend.  It was suddenly gone for a few minutes, and when I watched Perry struggle, I felt his pain, at the same time as I despise his politics.

Transient name-aphasia is a known problem as people get older. But wait a minute. Mitt Romney is older than Rick Perry. So are Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul. And the Clintons, Bill and Hillary both. John Kerry. Barney Frank. Chuck Schumer is the same age. And so on. Apart from elected politicians, a long list starting with Chris Matthews. Whatever your complaints about any of these people, they don't notably struggle for words. Indeed, in several cases they might sound better if they were forced to wait to find a word every now and then. (Herman Cain's recent "I don't remember" statements about his accusers are different.) And if any of them did momentarily stumble in recalling a word or name, it would be seen as a momentary happens-to-anyone glitch, not as confirmation of pre-existing doubts.

So, age makes the challenge greater but can't explain why only Rick Perry, among the over-60s on the stage, was afflicted. Another reader, a teacher in New Jersey, comes closer to nailing the problem, I think:

Rick Perry's lapse last night made me think of something you said when Sarah Palin was running for VP. [See "My prediction about Sarah Palin," from August 2008.]

As I recall, you said that you expected gaffes, because it takes a serious amount of time to be comfortably conversant with the issues. I think your estimate was about 6 months, which seems like a sound guess.

I'd add to that a second factor: overuse familiarity with issues and phrases.

Like most of us, I have moments when I grope for words, even simple ones. But I am a teacher, and some of the topics I teach I repeat several times a year for many years. I never have groping or forgetful moments with material repeat very frequently.

I suspect similar things happen with candidates. Mitt Romney has been running for years. Having repeated every issue numerous times, I doubt he will ever stumble or appear to be groping for words. Rick Perry, although on the national stage for awhile, has only been running for president for a few months. My guess is that he thinks he's up on the issues and that he's learned them adequately. But I suspect his lapse was due to the not being on the campaign trail long enough.

I agree. Running for national office is different from any other live public-performance feat. The range of issues on which you have to say something -- and can get in trouble for saying the wrong thing -- is astonishingly large. You're going to be asked, in the course of a day, about Syria, and No Child Left Behind, and nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, and North Korean and Iranian nukes, and ethanol, and flat-tax plans plus capital-gains schemes, and Afghanistan counterinsurgency strategies, and the European Central Bank, and what have you. I spend my life learning about public issues, but half of the items a presidential candidate is asked about I could barely formulate an answer on. And for a real candidate, a foot placed even slightly amiss on any of these issues can cause lots of headaches.

No one can do this well on the first try and with no preparation. The problem for Rick Perry -- like Sarah Palin and Dan Quayle before him, both of whom struggled -- is that he was all of a sudden on this main stage, without any forgiving build-up process. (The "forgiving" part comes in those early months of small rubber-chicken events around the country where candidates learn what they're going to be asked and what they will and will not say.) As the second reader says, Mitt Romney is so rarely flapped in these debates because he has answered every one of these questions a million times before.

And another reader writes just now:

How likely is it a candidate will freeze like that on a policy proposal he really cares about, one that he's thought extensively about?
 
What it shows I think is that talk of eliminating federal agencies has remained just a gimmick for Perry, no matter how many times he repeated it on campaign. If Perry was unlucky, it's because it wasn't one of his rivals stumbling this way over one of their own gimmicks...which practically litter the whole field.

Yes, that's part of the bizarre layout of this Republican race as well.

A candidate who started out with better natural verbal skills than Perry might have covered up the awkward learning stage better. But it's an inevitable problem, and one that has brought his campaign down.

Essay question for later study: This is the first time (that I can think of) when the primary-campaign debate process has effectively eliminated an otherwise powerful-seeming candidate. Now that it has happened once this way, will early-stage debates be lastingly important? Or will this weird sequence remain in the political-trivia category of, "Gee, do you remember those incredible Perry debates in 2011"?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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