To hear some analysts, GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry's brain freeze during Wednesday's economics debate was a disaster for his campaign. For instance, political commentator Larry J. Sabato said: "To my memory, Perry's forgetfulness is the most devastating moment of any modern primary debate."
But there are other things about Perry's performance, and his candidacy in general, that are more worrisome than a momentary memory lapse, however embarrassing.
It was certainly excruciating to watch Perry struggle to name the third government agency he would abolish: "I would do away with the Education, the Commerce and — let's see — I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops." The "oops" moment quickly became fodder for comedians, and Perry and his campaign defensively joined in the laughter. (On Thursday night, he appeared on David Letterman's program.)
Yet is it fair to suggest that Perry's lapse is disqualifying? Who among us has not experienced a brain freeze, in settings far less intimidating that a nationally televised debate? The argument that Perry's lapse is nevertheless significant is based on the notion that his forgetfulness was proof that he wasn't conversant with his own positions, as if the idea of abolishing the Energy Department were the product of campaign staff work that he never quite mastered. But in fact, abolishing the Energy Department is perfectly consistent with the views of an oil-state governor about federal regulation of energy. The notion that he doesn't know what the department is or does is absurd.
Another theory of why the brain freeze attracted such comment is that it was the latest in a series of tongue-tied performances by Perry in this season's GOP debates. Had another candidate groped for a word, according to this theory, the lapse would soon have been forgotten. That may be true, but while Perry's appearances, taken together, may reflect badly on his ability to perform in front of a crowd, even that isn't necessarily a disqualifying factor.
Far more disturbing than Perry's speechlessness were words that actually were uttered at the debate. In opposing "bailouts," for instance, several candidates played down the relationship between the U.S. and European economies. Suggesting that he didn't think it was necessary to rescue foreign nations on the verge of default, Perry said: "It doesn't make any difference whether it's Wall Street or whether it's some corporate entity or whether it's some European country. If you are too big to fail, you are too big."
That answer ignores the potentially devastating effect on the U.S. economy of cascading failures in Europe. It was a point better forgotten.