In last night’s debate, Rick Perry had a big gaffe while trying to name three federal agencies that he would flat-out cut if elected President. He was quick to name Education and Commerce, but couldn’t remember the third one over the course of over 50 seconds. The EPA was suggested to him by his colleagues on stage, but he said, no, that’s not it.
Not shockingly, the immediate reaction and early reports was that this gaffe would likely be fatal for Perry. He couldn’t remember three things despite a minute to get the third one and help from his colleagues on stage (he later said it was Energy). Yes, this was undoubtedly a failure in execution of the highest order.
But as Matt Stoller was quick to point out on Twitter, the thing that was crazy about this debate moment wasn’t that Perry couldn’t remember three things, it’s that he was proposing destroying the Commerce, Education, and Energy Departments and no one was challenging him on what this would actually mean for the country or the people who worked there.
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Stoller’s right that these serious questions are being completely glossed over by the reaction to the gaffe. How Perry thinks we would fund the maintenance and security of our nuclear arsenal is a big deal. Cutting funding for children with special needs would be a huge tax on parents. These are big questions.
It’s common that those of us in the liberal blogosphere remark on the vapidity of the DC press corps. But looking at Twitter, many Democratic operatives and liberal bloggers were just as fixated on the gaffe and not the insanity of Perry’s ideas. I’m just as guilty of that as anyone. And this is a real problem, not just with the press, but with American political culture.
These are serious times and the level of debate should be high and serious. Parts of the CNBC debate, especially on the exposure US banks have to European debt and rapidly increasing risk, were both important and enlightening. It turns out Jon Huntsman is strongly against the continued existence of Too Big To Fail institutions. Unfortunately many of his opponents think that we can ignore Europe and not expect to be affected by what is happening in the Eurozone. The degree of dangerous ignorance emanating from the stage was so thick that even the CNBC moderators pushed back on it, to an extent. The Republican candidates’ responses to these immediate questions are much more relevant that what agencies they pledge to eliminate or what they would do if Obamacare was repealed. The economic crisis facing Europe will almost certainly be playing itself out a year from now, in some form or another, and it will almost certainly be an immediate, major US public policy issue long before then (actually, it is now). The insanity of most of the panels’ answers to questions about the ongoing financial crisis is far more important and more dangerous than the inability of one demagogue to effectively utter his demagoguery.