Donald Trump's madcap march toward the Republican nomination has confounded nearly every political professional. But it is doubly vexing for veterans of campaigns brought down by infamous gaffes.
And so finds a man like Ray Sullivan, trying to make sense of it all.
Sullivan was the deputy campaign manager for Rick Perry's 2012 presidential run, which ended, suddenly and infamously, after the former Texas governor short-circuited on the debate stage while trying to remember the third of three federal agencies he intended to disband. (For those of you who also can't recall Perry's "oops moment," they were the Departments of Education, Commerce and ... Energy.)
What if Perry had taken a more Trumpian tact in response to his embarrassment?
Sullivan is leery to even look down this rabbit hole when asked by CNBC.com.
Nevertheless, he obliges: "Given the observations of this season, had that happened in (2016), we may have come out the next day and attacked someone in a completely over-the-top manner or dropped a public policy position that was so outrageously newsworthy that folks forgot about the night before."
But with 2012 not being 2016, and with Perry not being Trump, Perry's recourse at the time was far more repentant.
The recovery operation began in earnest right after the CNBC debate on Nov. 9, 2011. Perry showed up in the spin room, insisting his error was stylistic, not substantive. He and his advisers promptly beelined to the East Coast, where Perry made the rounds on the morning political talk shows the following day, finishing the evening with a self-effacing appearance on David Letterman (he blamed the gaffe on "El Nino").
This is how seriously presidential contenders have traditionally responded to gaffes. But with "Trumpism" has come a whole new way of looking at the political gaffe, its consequences, its cures, and ultimately its future. Has Trump merely suspended the laws of campaign physics, or has he changed them? Political science is waiting to find out.
Following the 2012 campaign, Steve Frantzich, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, authored a book, "O.O.P.S.," which analyzed a series of case studies of how politicians successfully or unsuccessfully recovered from gaffes. Among his central theses was that apology served as the best remedy — a tact the Trumpian model ostentatiously flouts.
"In some ways I am glad I am not doing an update this year because it doesn't fit the pattern," Frantzich told CNBC.com. "Usually we have a situation where you have a series of gaffes that become 'character flaws.' … [But] being Trump is not having to say you're sorry. He seems to be able to get away with these things."
Consider the more ignominious political gaffes of the last two decades — the mistakes that ostensibly sunk campaigns or marred politicians: George Allen's "macaca", Todd Akin's "legitimate rape," John Kerry's flip-flop, Al Gore's yawn, Mitt Romney's "47 percent," among others. While each of these differed on the scale of wrong-headedness, it seems fair to say they all paled in comparison to Trump's weekly blunder.
"You have a marriage of a gaffe with an egotist," Frantzich says of the 2016 race. Trump campaign officials did not respond to a request from CNBC for comment.
To be fair, the gaffe is almost entirely a media conceit, and one even reporters find problematic.
"The centrality of the gaffe is an outgrowth of horse race coverage," New York magazine's Jonathan Chait wrote in 2012. "Political reporters have little interest in informing the public about the policies advocated by the two candidates. Their job is to tell us every day who is winning."
A Pew study that year, conducted after Romney's "47 percent" gaffe, found that the former governor's surreptitiously recorded remarks had been absorbed by a strong majority of voters, most of whom reacted negatively. A year later, in a post-election autopsy, Romney himself cited it as being particularly damaging.
Campaigns and media critics have, over the years, lamented the state of a gaffe-obsessed press stultifying the public (or even semi-private) candor of politicians. But in light of Trump, a candidate so manifestly unconcerned with saying the wrong thing, one can detect a certain wistfulness for the Good Ol' Days when "oops" mattered. Moreover, there is the growing worry that Trump's style of radical aloofness will inform the strategies of other politicians, however misguided that might be for them.
"One of the things I fear, or that I am deeply concerned about," said Sullivan, "is that maybe this is just Trump, maybe it is just his personality and his style and talents — if you want to put it that way — or perhaps it is a trend in national elections, in presidential elections, that I don't even want to think about for 2020, 2024 and beyond."
One experienced Republican operative, who advised Akin's star-crossed Senate run, said he expects others to try and replicate Trump approach.
"Politics is the art of the plagiarism," said the consultant, who asked not to be named. "It's the Howard Dean phenomenon — political fads are almost shorter than fashion fads. And this is a particularly high-risk one."
Will the businessman's solecistic joyride come to a halt in the general election, confronted with a two-person race and a less forgiving media environment? That's certainly the hope of Democrats and "Never Trump" Republicans. But there's reason to wonder.
Last week, Politico attempted to mill all of Trump's output through a rigorous fact-checking process, an effort that took the dedicated work of three full-time reporters.
Simply put: There are not enough pages in a newspaper, nor hours in a cable news day, nor employed journalists to give any of Trump's statements the "oops" treatment. In this way, Trump has successfully, if negligently, overheated the engine of journalism to such a degree, that the yellow light no longer comes on.
As Roger Stone, the former unofficial Trump advisor, recently told the Weekly Standard: "The rules we've always lived by are out the window. This moment couldn't have happened three years ago. But whether Trump is a one-off, it's here now."