As he tries to recover from his awful debate stumble, the Texas governor's response has been an aggressive effort to show he can laugh at himself
Rick Perry can't stop talking about his instantly famous "oops" moment in Wednesday night's debate. He showed up in the spin room afterwards to face up to it, and sent an email to supporters a couple of hours later. He went on five morning shows and did more media interviews throughout the day. He's slated to go on the "Late Show with David Letterman" Thursday night and maybe even "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." At each stop, the message has been the same: Wow, that sure was terrible, wasn't it?
Why is Perry so eager to thrust in our faces a gaffe so painful many saw it as disqualifying? It's a remarkably aggressive damage-control strategy -- but it might be his only hope.
Consider the alternatives. Perry's team could have gone into bunker mode -- indeed, that has basically been their tactic after his last several rough outings in debates. Campaign representatives have continued to insist everything was fine, while the candidate himself rarely made himself available, reinforcing the impression that he couldn't be trusted to handle questions. Perry also could have tried to sugarcoat the stumble, made excuses, or lashed out at his critics, but any defense he tried to mount wouldn't have been credible in the face of those awful 50-some seconds of tape.
Perry's tack instead has been to laugh at himself and confront the embarrassment head-on. He's risking (further) humiliation and possibly amplifying the original mistake. And as we've abundantly seen in this campaign, every moment Perry is off script is a dangerous one for him. But let's face it -- there was no way this was going to go away if he ignored it.
By facing the issue and joking about it, Perry frames his gaffe as a funny moment rather than a serious, and seriously stupid, one. He takes control of the discussion. Every minute he's on the air being interviewed about it is one more minute his moment isn't being replayed, one more minute some panel of pundits isn't fretfully analyzing its stupendous terribleness. By allowing his memory glitch to be the topic of discussion and owning up to it, he helps exhaust the subject.
Most of all, Perry is being humanized, albeit not in the way any politician would wish.
For all the talk about the Republican field's lack of a credible conservative to take on Mitt Romney, there's another, just as glaring void: the humanity gap. Romney's woodenness and lack of approachability are arguably just as much of an issue as his ideological heresies and lack of consistency. He's just not relatable. A little personality goes a long way in a politician -- just look at Herman Cain.
Perry's reputation in Texas is as a folksy charmer, but it's a persona he seems to have left back in Austin for most of this campaign. He's been stilted and spacey and unsure by turns, with flashes of a better politician occasionally showing through.
Now, though it may be too late, Perry is seizing the chance to show he's just like us. He, too, saw what happened on that stage and groaned. He, too, thought he looked awfully dumb. But in refusing to let it get him down, he can show forthrightness and sincerity, two traits voters are surely wishing they saw more of from this field of Republican candidates.
Image credit: Getty Images/Scott Olson
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Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.