Update: At his first confirmation hearing on Thursday, Perry said he regretted his plan to get rid of the Energy Department.
Rick Perry's “oops” moment is wrongly remembered as the reason his 2012 presidential campaign failed: It was on life support even before that. But to this day, it's showing us how one moment can still define a politician even years later.
Perry, of course, has enhanced that process by running for president again in 2016 and now accepting President-elect Donald Trump's nomination to head the Energy Department — which just so happens to be the very department he forgot he wanted to eliminate when he committed the “oops” gaffe. It was to be expected that this would follow him at least somewhat as he takes on that job, of all jobs.
But then came these two brutal paragraphs, from an article in today's New York Times about the “learning curve” Perry faces in running the Energy Department. Basically, the Times says Perry didn't know what the department did:
When President-elect Donald J. Trump offered Rick Perry the job of energy secretary five weeks ago, Mr. Perry gladly accepted, believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state.
In the days after, Mr. Perry, the former Texas governor, discovered that he would be no such thing — that in fact, if confirmed by the Senate, he would become the steward of a vast national security complex he knew almost nothing about, caring for the most fearsome weapons on the planet, the United States’ nuclear arsenal.
The Times story moves on to quote a former Perry and Trump transition adviser, energy lobbyist Michael McKenna, whose comment seems to provide at least some of the basis for the two paragraphs.
“If you asked him on that first day he said yes, he would have said, ‘I want to be an advocate for energy,’ ” McKenna said. “If you asked him now, he’d say, ‘I’m serious about the challenges facing the nuclear complex.’ It’s been a learning curve.”
McKenna disputes the Times's characterization of Perry's awareness of what the Energy Department does, telling the Daily Caller that the headline and two paragraphs above “don’t really reflect what I said.” The conservative website notes that Texas, where Perry served as governor for 14 years, is the home to the country's primary facility for assembling and dismantling nuclear weapons, the Pantex Nuclear Weapons Plant.
But McKenna's quote and Perry's five-year-old gaffe can't help but feed a narrative about the governor that he is out of his element on policy and not terribly familiar with the Energy Department he will lead. If he was so adamant about getting rid of it and had studied the effect of such a thing, after all, why couldn't he muster its name back in 2012? And why would he take over the leadership of a department he thought to be superfluous?
The jokes basically write themselves:
The problems with Perry's “oops” gaffe are that (a) it was so instantly YouTube-able, (b) he has continues to do things that remind us of it, and (c) it reinforces everything his critics think about him. It's as if Mitt Romney — he of the "47 percent” infamy — wanted to become Trump's IRS commissioner. It would be too perfect.
In both the cases of Romney's "47 percent” comment and Perry's “oops” gaffe, we may ascribe too much importance to one moment when it comes to these politicians' fates. (Romney certainly had other problems.) But the larger truth that they seemed to betray follows both men to this day.
And in Perry's case, it's just too easy.