Gov. Rick Perry has run the most disastrous campaign for president in recent memory. The signature moment, of course, was his brain freeze at the GOP debate in Michigan, when he stammered for 54 seconds, unable to recall that he wants to eliminate the Department of Energy, the federal agency that safeguards the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and then uttered the delicious word that has come to define his candidacy: “oops.”
Internet and television pundits have called it one of the most memorable gaffes in the history of televised presidential debates. It was particularly damaging to Perry because it reinforced the central negative perceptions of him: that he’s a shallow candidate who lacks knowledge of federal policy, and that he’s an inarticulate man who, as many commentators put it, “isn’t ready for prime time.” The Perry campaign tried to spin the lapse as the kind of “human” moment we’ve all experienced. That’s not quite right. We forget things that people tell us—a stranger’s name, the number of the Medicaid reform bill, a co-worker’s birthday. We don’t forget our core beliefs, or lines of argument that we’ve carefully considered. Perry hasn’t studied the federal budget. He hasn’t thought carefully about whether—and to what effect—the Department of Energy should be eliminated. It was just something he said to energize the anti-government base. This approach cost him. For one spectacularly painful moment, Perry was naked in front of a national television audience, stripped of his talking point. Oops indeed.
The gaffe finished off Perry as a viable presidential candidate, barring a truly miraculous comeback. And the “oops” moment will become shorthand for Perry’s stumbling candidacy—if it hasn’t already. But the truth is that Perry had probably blown his chances well before the words “Department of Energy” slipped his mind. Perry’s poll numbers in the key early primary states had already sunk to single digits, a decline earned on merit. His missteps are too numerous to list, but here are some highlights: implying a threat of violence against Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke; saying the anti-immigrant base has “no heart”; mangling an attempted debate attack on Mitt Romney for flip-flopping; saying, in response to the first question of the Oct. 11 debate on economic issues, that he didn’t have a jobs plan but would release one soon; claiming that Warren Buffett, of all people, doesn’t understand how to create private-sector jobs. Eat your heart out, Fred Thompson.
The campaign has secured for Perry a national reputation as a bungler, but Texans can’t afford to think of him that way. Bunglers are harmless; if they cause pain, it’s accidental. Rick Perry isn’t Mr. Bean. He’s implemented policies that have robbed much-needed social services from hundreds of thousands of Texans. He’s lorded over state government like a bully, using intimidation and fear to get what he wants from the Legislature. Perhaps most of all, he’s built a network of patronage throughout state government in which supporters and former staffers populate key government positions and dispense state contracts and grants to companies that—coincidently or not—contribute to Perry’s political funds.
In the December 2011 issue of the Observer, we explore these elements of Perry’s record in Texas. And with good reason. His presidential campaign has been an embarrassment, and the rest of the nation will soon be free to forget about Rick Perry. But Texans don’t have that luxury. He is still our governor for—gulp—at least another three years. It behooves us to take him seriously.
In “The V.I.P. Room” we meet some of Perry’s friends and former staffers who have built careers—and won lucrative state contracts for their clients—thanks to their relationship with the governor.