The Washington Post

How to recover from political gaffes

Rick Perry’s political life passed before his eyes last night.  His gaffe brings into focus other awkward debates, and other performance moments, from the political past. The blogs are full of such links today.

Some of my top ones, in no particular order, are: 1. Bill Clinton’s 1988 convention speech — it went on and on and on, and brought forward the loudest cheers when he said, “And in conclusion. . . .”; 2. Ronald Reagan’s fugue in a 1984 debate about wandering down the Pacific Coast Highway; 3. Bobby Jindal’s response to the State of the Union in 2009; 4. Michael Dukakis’s overly intellectual response to Bernard Shaw’s question about what would happen if his wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered; and 5. Perhaps everyone’s all-time favorite, Lloyd Bentsen’s destruction of Dan Quayle.

When do these mistakes ruin a candidacy or a political career, and how do handlers try to mitigate them? What are the best practices for crisis management?

These moments hurt the most, of course, when they go to the heart of pre-existing doubts about people, or present a contrary and dissonant image of the candidate. Most examples fit within the former category: There were doubts about Reagan’s age and grasp, questions about Dukakis’s empathy and ability to relate to average people, and real reservations about Quayle’s seasoning. Conversely, in Clinton’s case, he was believed in 1988 to be the Democratic party’s most articulate orator, and Jindal was expected to be the next great thing for Republicans. So their problem was they played against expectations and called their core strengths into question.

So what can a candidate do to recover? Well, Perry is trying to follow the well-worn trail blazed by Reagan and Clinton: shine a light on your problem. Embrace it, move into popular culture as much as possible, where this stuff really lives. (Particularly damaging for Perry is that last night’s video will be the way most people are introduced to him, and, perhaps, say good-bye.) Clinton did this brilliantly with an appearance on Johnny Carson, which in those days was rarely done by politicians, and people got to see a humble, charming and funny side to him.

Reagan, too, not only mitigated his performance crisis, he turned it into an opportunity with his famous comeback in the next debate. Interestingly, he was able to do this when some of the reservations about his mental acuity may have been accurate.

Perry’s execution of damage control, so far, has been mixed. On the plus side, he has embraced the mistake, tried to make fun of himself. On the minus, he has not been able to turn it into a positive reflection on his character. In fact, he has tried to use it to attack Obama as being a “debater in chief.” That won’t work. Americans don’t want a debater, but they do want the president to have a basic grasp of facts.

In fairness, I’m not sure what else I would tell Perry to do. He had better have a really great comeback in the next debate. Too bad Mike Deaver, Reagan’s whisperer and one of the greats in our business, is no longer with us. He could tell him.


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