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Three… Uh… Uh… Maybe Two Things About Rick Perry’s Debate Gaffe

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So CNBC threw another debate for Mitt Romney and his traveling comedy troupe last night, this one focused, befitting the channel, on the economy. I could write about how the questions at the debate were as sharp and pointed as any since the excellent Fox News debate in August. I could note how the crowd booed Maria Bartiromo for asking Herman Cain about charges of inappropriate sexual conduct toward former employees. (It’s as if she were harassing him!) I could mention the fact that the often-dramatic GOP field was relatively subdued, especially in comparison with Jim Cramer, who practically leaped out of his skin at a row of potential leaders of the country calmly promising to let Italy fail.

But there’s really one thing anyone wants to talk about this morning: the 53 thrilling, excruciating seconds (above) during which Rick Perry’s brain fell out of his head on live television.

I am a forgetful man. I am not a practiced public speaker. There is not a time I appear on live TV or radio that I do not fear I will forget what I am talking about or let slip an f-word. So I felt truly sympathetic for Rick Perry last night, when he forget the third Cabinet department that he has apparently repeatedly promised in stump speeches that he would eliminate.

(MORE: What You Missed While Not Watching the CNBC ‘Oops’ Republican Debate)

I’ll add that, in an objective sense, his gaffe did not matter that much—what a voter should care about are a candidate’s policies, leadership record, abilities, &c., more so than the ability to give impressive answers to questions on live TV off-the-cuff.

That’s true objectively. But in every sense relating to who will be the next Republican nominee, it matters pretty much more than anything.

The thing about political gaffes is that their damage is determined only partly by the gaffe in and of itself. What matters more is the kind of gaffe and how it relates to the person who made it. If the same thing had happened to Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich, it would have been an amusing moment. People would have talked about it and posted it on YouTube. But it probably would not have the candidates’ own supporters saying, as has been reported today, that it’s all over for them.

That’s because a gaffe is most damaging when it feeds into an existing narrative about the candidate. In the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama’s “cling to guns and religion” slip-up hurt because he was already suspect among some of the blue-collar, religious voters he was talking about—there was an existing problem narrative.

Perry’s existing problem narrative, why sugarcoat it, is that he is too dumb to be President. It may or may not be true or fair; it is a political fact. So when the most memorable part of the debate was him giving visual evidence in a minute of cringe humor worthy of The Office (and I’m talking the British version) it hurts. It may not be fair, but it hurt because it happened to him. (Of course, you could certainly argue that it didn’t happen to a different GOP candidate, and that was not coincidence. And part of the problem was not just Perry’s forgetting but his complete inability to recover: he just had nothing.)

Cain provided another example last night, with a line that we might all be buzzing about this morning but for the grace of Rick Perry: when, after a week and a half of charges of misusing women, he dismissively referred to the female Speaker of the House House Minority Leader as “Princess Nancy.” I don’t see that hurting him among his voters as Perry’s gaffe might, but because it played into a narrative, it drew more attention than if, say, Rick Santorum—or Perry—had said the same thing.

Meanwhile, poor Rick Perry, already the losingest debater of the Presidential cycle, has many more of these ahead of him if he stays in the race. Maybe before the next debate, he and Cain could agree to swap gaffes.