After Perry’s Gaffe, a Silence

Coverage should make room for what he meant to say

It was “a cringe-worthy gaffe”, “a brain freeze”, “a political nightmare”, “a crash”, “an epic fail.”

It “will likely go down as one of the most damaging flubs in presidential campaign history”; “It will be played forever on an endless loop. This defines him, reinforcing the stereotype, and it is timeless, never goes away.

Business Insider went with all caps: “PERRY DEBATE DISASTER: This is the moment that officially killed his campaign—for good.”

Rick Perry’s oops moment was of course the biggest story to come out of last night’s Republican debate. That’s because, as has been noted, it confirmed what many people already thought about Rick Perry (not. that. sharp).

Most of the press coverage of Perry’s remark has focused on how what he failed to say might mean for the course of his candidacy. But can’t there be room, too, for a little attention on what he meant to say?

Michael Shear’s post at The New York Times’s The Caucus blog follows the typical pattern:

The reaction was fast, furious and unrelenting in its conclusion that Mr. Perry’s stumble was not only embarrassing, but quite likely devastating to his candidacy.

The Republican consultant Larry Sabato tweeted: “To my memory, Perry’s forgetfulness is the most devastating moment of any modern primary debate.”

Steve Schmidt, who helped run Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, said on MSNBC, “It’s over for him.”

As Shear reports, Perry’s campaign was spinning the story, trying to persuade the press that Perry’s gaffe was “a human moment” and “a stumble of style but not substance.”

Perry’s campaign has a good point, but is it wholly accurate? What if Perry has a problem of style and substance?

Reporting on the merits and details of Perry’s plan to dismantle three federal agencies seems like a line of inquiry quite worth pursuing—particularly since he’s not the only candidate advocating such drastic agency-killing actions.

What would eliminating the Department of Energy really mean? What sort of savings would be found by killing the Commerce Department? How feasible is it to shut down the nation’s education agency?

Of the hundreds of stories and conversations about Perry’s “gaffe,” only a very few of them bothered to examine or even raise such questions. And that’s a problem. Voters don’t only need to be told that Perry’s mistake was bad. They need to be given information that can help them decide if Perry’s planned cuts would be bad (or, of course, not so bad).

Kudos to The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, National Journal’s Matthew Cooper, and Alyson Klein of Education Week for being among the few. Ezra Klein, in a post titled “The Gaffe Behind Perry’s Gaffe”, and Cooper point out that one problem with eliminating the $11 billion Commerce Department is that (among other things) it administers the Constitutionally-mandated census.

Meanwhile, Alyson Klein notes that:

Perry’s own education plan doesn’t call for scrapping the U.S. Department of Education. He would only get rid of about half of the department.

It’s a small list. Did we forget anyone? (It’s going around.)

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.