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Perry’s fourth-grade logic

Alex Coccia | Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How can a politician attempt to recover from a misspeak in a presidential debate that has incurred the joyous reception by so many comedians that the word “oops” will soon be replaced with “pulled a Perry?” Simple: The politician must himself become a comedian.

Damage control went into full gear as Texas Governor Rick Perry tried to laugh along with those who jumped on his “oops moment.” He appeared on David Letterman giving the Top 10 List of “Perry Excuses” one night after the infamous presidential debate. Excuses like “I had a five-hour energy drink, six hours before the debate,” “I wanted to help take the heat off my buddy Herman Cain,” and “I don’t know what you’re talking about — I think things went well,” drew applause from Letterman’s guests and created more material for Perry’s critics and comic commentators. But Perry and his advisors had used a tactic different from all his GOP opponents when it came to going on the defensive: the fourth-grade logic of laughing at yourself to avoid embarrassment.

Theorizing from the past actions of the GOP candidates, here is how each one might have responded having been faced with a similar scenario: Newt Gingrich would have chastised the media for either blowing the incident way out of proportion or for asking such a ridiculous question with the intent of turning Republicans against each other; Michele Bachmann would have attributed the occurrence to a psychological phenomenon for which she would have had absolutely no academic credibility; Herman Cain would have simply denied the whole thing despite the number of witnesses; Rick Santorum would have blamed the gay community’s jihad against him for his failure; Jon Huntsman would have uttered a defense that would have been completely ignored by the media who had never given him a chance at winning; and Ron Paul would have acknowledged his mistake but would have taken pride in actually remembering four out of five instead of two out of three. And then there is Mitt Romney, who would have most likely had somewhere on his notecards the key components of his presidential platform.

Perry, however, rose above all of the defiance and inaccuracies that seem to plague his fellow candidates. Perry laughed at himself and at a blatant mistake he made in his run for presidency. In an attitude reminiscent of his Oct. 28 speech at Cornerstone Action’s Annual Fundraising Dinner and Awards Gala in New Hampshire, Perry gave the Top 10 list on Letterman with the boyish smugness of a fourth-grader who had in fact slipped in the classroom, and was now standing up laughing with the rest of the class commenting on how clumsy he was.

Only this time, the class was the entire nation, and the context was no longer fourth grade. Most have completely discounted Perry from the race, despite his efforts to renew his image. Jon Stewart locked in his prediction that Mitt Romney would be the GOP candidate the night after the “oops” moment.

However, do not count Perry out, because there are three potential outcomes of Perry’s fourth-grade logic. The first outcome — he could lose all credibility as a presidential candidate, in effect handing over the presidential nomination to Mitt Romney and in the end becoming a political pundit, or a regular contributor to Comedy Central. The second outcome — he could truly recover from the “oops” moment, never make a mistake again and have an enormous showing in the 2012 primary season. All of this would have been because he had listened to his fourth-grade teacher (and strategic advisors) who said, “Rick, you have to laugh along with the rest of them.” The third outcome — well, I can’t think of the third.

So will Perry be able to recover? Only the primaries will tell. One more “oops” moment and Perry is surely finished. However, if Perry does make a comeback and wins the Republican presidential bid, it will have been because of the swiftness with which he made fun of himself; the sympathetic nature of the American people who know all to well that an “oops” moment can happen to anyone; and … well, I can’t think of the third.

Nonetheless, Perry should write his fourth-grade teacher a thank you note.

Alex Coccia is a sophomore. He thinks that the bluntness of Jon Stewart and the sarcasm of Stephen Colbert strike a perfect balance in political analysis. He can be reached at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.