It is risky to ever state something has never before happened in American politics. But by declaring “Oops” and mangling his own platform in Wednesday night’s GOP candidate debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry pulled off the unimaginable: the worst stumble in the 51-year history of televised presidential debates.
Unquestionably, he is the first candidate to ever utter the word “oops.” But almost as unquestionably, his failure to remember the name of the third federal department he pledges to eliminate—the Department of Energy—is the worst self-inflicted wound ever since the first modern debate between Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy on Sept. 26, 1960.
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Most of the memorable debate moments have come from effective zingers that put opponents on the defensive—Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 telling Dan Quayle, “Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy,” or Ronald Reagan in 1980 laughingly dismissing President Jimmy Carter with a breezy “There you go again.” Other candidates have blundered in ways ranging from bad makeup (Nixon against Kennedy on Sept. 26, 1960), loud sighing (Al Gore against George W. Bush on Oct. 11, 2000), to looking at a watch (George H.W. Bush against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot on Oct. 15, 1992).
One candidate—Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis—even blundered by failing to show what most viewers considered appropriate passion toward his wife when, in his Oct. 13, 1988, debate with George H.W. Bush, he was asked whether he would favor "an irrevocable death penalty for the killer" if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered. An emotionless Dukakis responded calmly with talk of studies showing the death penalty is no deterrent to violent crime.
But sweating, sighing, looking bored, or lacking emotion do not by themselves disqualify someone from being president. Forgetting your own platform and demonstrating a basic failure to communicate, however, moves the debate in that direction. All Perry’s strategists need to do is ask those who were advising President Gerald Ford in his 1976 battle with Carter. Ford had closed the gap when he and Carter went to San Francisco for their Oct. 6 debate. But all that momentum ended in the time it took The New York Times’ Max Frankel to ask the president about growing Soviet influence in Europe during the Cold War days. Ford responded that this dominance “just isn’t true,” adding, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
Frankel even gave the president a chance to back off his declaration. But Ford made it worse, stating that he did not think the Yugoslavians, the Romanians, or the Poles “consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.” The damage was done and all the news coverage for days was on whether Ford was naive or ignorant and when the White House would concede his mistake. By the time he did, all the race’s momentum had shifted to Carter. Ford never recovered.
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Other candidates have stumbled and said things that hurt them. Most recently, Barack Obama alienated many voters in New Hampshire—particularly women—when he seemed to be condescending to Hillary Rodham Clinton on Jan. 6, 2008. When Clinton was responding to a question about whether she was as personally appealing as Obama, he turned to her and said, “You’re likable enough.” Days later, she scored a major upset and beat him in the New Hampshire primary.
Perhaps the self-inflicted wound that came closest to Perry’s stumble was retired Adm. James Stockdale’s performance in the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 13, 1992. Stockdale was a widely admired hero of the Vietnam War but was a political novice when Ross Perot unexpectedly tapped him to be his running mate. Then Perot forgot to inform Stockdale that he had accepted an invitation for Stockdale to participate in the debate. Stockdale had only 12 days to prepare to go against veteran politicians Al Gore and Dan Quayle. And he chafed at the rule preventing candidates from bringing anything to the podium with them. “I felt so helpless to this business of not having any papers,” Stockdale later told Jim Lehrer. “That seems like a throwback to a schoolboy.”
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Stockdale’s opening words were “Who am I? Why am I here?” They were words he had planned as a way of introducing himself and his nonpolitical background to voters. But he never developed the theme. Instead, he looked simply confused and gave comedians and Saturday Night Live ample material to lampoon him. In the audience, his wife broke into tears as the night wore on and it was clear Stockdale was out of his element. “On this particular evening in 1992, the country saw someone who looked confused and weak,” his son Taylor Stockdale wrote in 2008 in The Wall Street Journal. “Without knowing who he was or what he did for his country, most Americans turned off their TV sets and formed an opinion of him based on a 90-minute debate.”
Today, almost 20 years later, Perry is struggling to prevent voters from making the same conclusion based on his performance Wednesday night, and without the sterling resume Stockdale had to fall back on.
And Stockdale never said “Oops.”