Perry embraces the politics of self-destruction

November 12, 2011

In the latest Republican presidential debate in Michigan, Texas Gov. Rick Perry added to his woes by saying there were three federal cabinet departments he would cut if he were president, and then could name only two of them. "The third one, I can't (remember)," he confessed. "Sorry. Oops."

Much later in the debate, when the subject of energy came up, Governor Perry recalled the forgotten department he would ax, along with Commerce and Education, the latter being the usual favorite target of party conservatives.

Seldom has a major political figure shot himself in the foot, or in the mouth, so conspicuously before a nationwide television audience. What made matters worse for Mr. Perry was that the debate on CNBC otherwise was perhaps the most expansive and substantive exploration of the eight participating candidates' views on how to right the sagging economy.

Everybody has a lapse of recollection from time to time. But this occasion was one in which Mr. Perry had another opportunity not merely to demonstrate some talent in the give-and-take of political debate but also his grasp of facts, two qualities that have been heretofore lacking.

While several of the other Republican presidential aspirants responded informatively and persuasively to probing questions on tax policy, the European economic crisis, bank bailouts, housing foreclosures, health care reform and the like, Governor Perry seemed out of his league. At one point he again fell back on his standard argument that things are better in Texas.

In sharp contrast was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who continued his careful navigation through the shoals of frontrunner status by adhering to doctrinaire conservative orthodoxy designed to combat continuing suspicions of flip-floppery. At one point, he cited his experience as governor having to deal with a heavily Democratic state legislature, which made him feel he was "always in an away game."

At the same time, Mr. Romney continued to project himself as a defender of the middle class, the same turf claimed by President Obama, rather than overtly embracing the class-warfare mantra of most of the other GOP hopefuls. Governor Romney continues to campaign with one eye on the primaries and the other on the general election.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, reveling in reports of his mildly rising fortunes, once more trotted out his self-proclaimed superiority as a historian and bully pulpiteer of the news media. He chided the press for not reporting "accurately how the economy works" and churlishly said he couldn't possibly respond in 30 seconds what he would offer in place of President Obama's health care plan.

His attempted bullying of the questioner, CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, slid off her back. She politely asked again: "Would you like to try to explain in simple speech to the American people what you would do?"

"In 30 seconds?" Mr. Gingrich sarcastically inquired.

"Take the time you need, sir," she answered.

He retreated: "I can't take the time I need. These guys (the other candidates) will gang up on me."

Ms. Bartiromo cooly asked him: "Do you want to answer the question tonight on health care?" He finally did, repeating his boilerplate pitch of getting the federal government out of it.

Overshadowed in the lengthy exploration of the candidates' views on the main domestic issue facing the country was the sideshow of Herman Cain's alleged past sexual harassment. He briefly repeated his denials, declaring, "The American people deserve better than someone being tried in the court of public opinion based on unfounded accusations." By continuing to contribute to his campaign, he said, they were saying they didn't care about the attacks on his character. Mr. Romney declined to comment, saying Mr. Cain "is the person to respond to these questions. He just did."

In all, this latest candidate forum was a night for grown-up discussion that did credit to the moderators, Ms. Bartiromo and the best of the New York Times political reporters, John Harwood, and to most of the other participants, if not to the forgetting and increasingly forgettable Messrs. Perry and Gingrich, again playing the smartest kid on the block.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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