ROCHESTER, Mich.—Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. Born in a South Carolina hotel ballroom on Aug. 13, it died on the campus of Oakland University on Nov. 9, with CNBC’s debate moderators unable to avert their eyes. The cause of death: self-inflicted injury, brought on by amnesia.
The Perry campaign had always been sickly. But for a little while no one wanted to diagnose it. A Politico front-pager about whether Perry was “dumb”? Cheap “name-calling,” according to Fox News. The candidate calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme?” If you didn’t like that, you had a problem with straight talk and honesty and, probably, cojones. Reporters dutifully filed stories about Perry’s donor-friendly contracting, about the bogusness of his “Texas miracle.” The campaign pretended that the media didn’t exist.
It couldn’t last, because eventually, voters had to hear from Rick Perry. No amount of expectations-lowering guff—and Perry had exhausted the North American supply of it—could have saved him from what happened when he tried to name three abolishable Cabinet departments. He was repeating something he says at every major campaign stop, and yet he couldn’t remember it.
“It is three agencies of government when I get there that are gone,” he said. “Commerce, Education, and the—What's the third one there? Let's see.” After Ron Paul and moderator John Harwood failed to bail him out, he simply said, “Oops.” After the debate was over, Perry himself entered the media spin room for the first time. The rule about spin rooms: Front-runners don’t bother with them. In a panic, you forget rules like that.
“I tell you what,” said Perry to the gawking mob. “I named two more agencies of government than what the, uh, uh, current administration has talked about getting rid of.” He juiced this with a new, hideous talking point: “I may have forgotten Energy, but I haven’t forgotten my conservative principles.”
Reporters wouldn’t leave him alone, asking him again and again how he felt.
“I stepped in it, man!” said Perry. “Yeah, it was embarrassing! Of course it was!”
A few steps away, Mitt Romney’s spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom was looking for ways to shiv Perry without noticeable traces of blood. He found one.
“There’s nothing I could say that could darken the night Rick Perry had.”
True. All of those hours of fundraising, all of those one-engine flights to rural Iowa, all of that delicate flag placement at big speeches, and the fate of presidential campaigns comes down to stuff like this. Tim Pawlenty never recovered after he debuted the buzzword “Obamneycare,” then faced Mitt Romney in a debate and declined to use it. Perry was already perceived as a how’d-he-get-this-far bantamweight. He’ll never be perceived as anything else.
In a moment of pure media frenzy like this, in the hours before the Perry meltdown clip is repeated more times on cable news than footage of a cat playing a keyboard, we can forget that there’s a whole presidential campaign out there. Twenty-four hours ago, the press was distracted by the tribulations and incoherence of another man who won’t be president: Herman Cain. His problems ended (temporarily, pending the next accuser’s press conference) only 15 minutes into the CNBC debate. Maria Bartiromo tried to ask Cain about his unending sexual harassment scandal. The crowd of Republicans, diehards who’d had to work for their seats, booed her for her audacity.