Media coverage of last night's debate has been consumed by Rick Perry's onstage mental block, and for good reason. As I wrote over on the homepage, his inability to recall the three executive-branch agencies he would eliminate was more than your typical gaffe, quite possibly the most embarrassing moment from a presidential debate in the television era (I might be a little young to make such a claim, but reporters who have followed debates since 1960 concur).
“Oh my God it was just horrible. Just horrible,” said Hamilton County GOP Chairman Mark Greenfield, who has endorsed Perry. “I felt very bad for him. It happens. But it shouldn’t happen when you run for president. It was very embarrassing for everyone.”
Those 50 seconds of stumbling were mighty painful to watch, but it's worth noting how abysmal Perry's other answers were as well. Every statement lacked any semblance of substance, just empty platitudes pulled from his stump speeches. These debates haven't exactly been wonk-heavy policy discussions, but Perry is by far the worst offender. Take the first question posed to Perry last night, which didn't come until 15 minutes into the debate:
Moderator John Harwood: Ronald Reagan raised taxes when the deficit got too big. George W. Bush supported TARP and the auto bailout when he thought we might face a Great Depression—second Great Depression. Does that, examples like that, tell you that good, effective leaders need to show the kind of flexibility that Governor Romney has showed on some issues?
Perry: The next president of the United States needs to send a powerful message not just to the people of this country but around the world that America is going to be America again; that we are not going to pick winners and losers from Washington, D.C.; that we’re going to trust the capital markets and the private sector to make the decisions and let the consumers pick winners and losers.
And 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.
Notice how he avoided anything remotely connected to the actual question? Besides a semantic lesson on making America again, that answer gave no indication of how he would governor as president.
The only topics Perry raised that approached real policy were his flat-tax plan and some posturing against government regulation. He referenced the specific numbers of his flat-tax proposal—the one that is a huge tax cut for the country's wealthiest—only once last night, without any sort of argument for how it would help the country. "The next president of the United States has to have the courage to go forward, pull back every regulation since 2008," he said, "audit them for one thing: Is it creating jobs, or is it killing jobs? And if that regulation is killing jobs, do away with it." Which specific regulations does Perry see as job killers? You couldn't have learned it from last night's debate.