You’ve got to give Rick Perry a little credit. Going on David Letterman and poking fun at himself—a prospect that meant talking about how handsome Mitt Romney is and quipping that Justin Bieber was his father—would not be easy for most people. Responding with humor to his quickly infamous flub, in which he repeatedly stumbled over naming the third government agency he’d eliminate, may have been a good idea.
To a point, that is. There is a limit to how much light you can make of a foul-up without people wondering how serious a leader you would be. For Perry, making himself look human is one thing. But trying to turn an “oops” into an asset feels like a stretch.
Perry’s team did just that when it began campaigning off his brain freeze, asking supporters in an email to “throw in a $5 contribution for every agency you would like to forget.” It even added a poll to its web site, asking people to vote on which agency they’d like to forget. On repeated morning talk show appearances Wednesday, Perry flashed his Texas grin again and again, telling viewers to head to rickperry.org and vote for which government department they’d prefer not to remember.
Laughing at himself for making such a big mistake probably helped Perry recover. But making light of such a monumental move—somehow eliminating three long-standing government agencies and the thousands of jobs that go with them—could also hurt him. By turning his gaffe into a talking point (there are so “damn many federal agencies” that you’d forget them too), he appeared glib, even flippant, about fundamental parts of the U.S. government and the thousands of people those agencies employ.
Maybe that’s just what the Republican electorate wants to hear. But I can’t help but think a better response for Perry would have been to joke about the brain freeze—scientists say it’s a normal response to stress, after all—and then quickly move on to talking about the critical problems this country faces and all the effort he has put into thinking about how to fix them. Instead, he seemed to be trying to capitalize on the mistake.
That’s not to say that cutting some or part of these organizations couldn’t be one solution. But as Tom Shoop over at Government Executive’s FedBlog put it, “when a presidential candidate can’t even remember which three large, established ongoing operations of government he would do away with (as if he could do so with the wave of his hand), it’s fairly clear he’s simply trying to follow talking points and not actually grappling with the issues of what government should be doing and how it should be structured to do it.”
It’s moments like these when voters understandably wonder if some candidates have given such solutions much of their thought and attention, or if they’re just parroting back ideas that have done well in the polls. There’s no reason cutting government agencies that do—I don’t know, important?—work assisting schools, promoting economic growth and funding scientific research on energy issues can’t be up for debate. But making light of that kind of change in order to make up for your own mistake shouldn’t be.
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