The Campaign Spot

We Need New Terms For What the Media Labels ‘Gaffes’

Today is one of those rare days when I’ll post the entire Morning Jolt here, as it is basically one long examination of the dominant topic of the campaign in recent weeks… So if you aren’t subscribed already, do so.

A Gaffe-tastic Morning Jolt!

We need a better, more specific term for the statements our current political journalism calls “gaffes.”

Because a lot of different statements are being thrown together under this category, and wildly contrary interpretations of candidate’s statements have become the premiere battleground of the 2012 campaign. Perhaps this is an inevitable result of a general election season that began in April or so – we’ve already hashed out the candidate’s agendas and records and ideas and vision; all that’s left is to go over each day’s unscripted comments like they’re the Dead Sea Scrolls.

For example, take then-candidate Obama’s statement, “I’ve now been in fifty-seven states, I think one left to go.”

Now, does anyone actually believe that President Obama thinks there are 57 states? He’s presumably tired, he’s thinking the number forty-seven, and his mouth is just running away from him. Happens to people all the time. He definitely sounds silly – as someone noted, “how many states are there?” is the sort of question they ask you after a concussion – but no one should draw any serious conclusions about Obama from this statement. (Then why do Republicans love the “57 states” statement so much? Because it is a lovely reminder that the candidate touted as the greatest orator since Cicero can sound dumb on his off days, too.)

Does Mitt Romney make some gaffes that deserve some criticism or mockery? Sure. “I’m not concerned about the very poor” comes to mind, or the strange description of himself as “severely conservative,” or joking to those looking for jobs, “I’m also unemployed.” Sometimes there’s this Zen surrealism to his off-the-cuff statements, like, “I love this state. The trees are the right height.” (Tell me you can’t picture Special Agent Dale Cooper making that statement in Twin Peaks.)

But to judge from the coverage of the past week or so, Romney makes a “gaffe” every time he speaks  – and the media, obsessed with advancing a “narrative”, now applies the word “gaffe” to very deliberate statements. What the term gaffe now means is, “a statement that someone, somewhere, doesn’t like.”

Of course, as Romney left the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, Poland this week, some journalistic genius bellowed at the candidate, “what about your gaffes?!?”

Well, what about them? The alleged gaffe of London was Romney accurately mentioning two widely-covered stories in an even-tempered, casual tone in response to an unanswerable question: Is London ready for the games? The apoplectic reaction of the British press and Mayor Boris Johnson says more about them than it does about Romney.

Then another alleged “gaffe” is Romney’s comment about the cultural differences between the Israelis and Palestinians. Is there anyone in America who wants to argue that the culture within the Palestinian territories – where Hamas runs the show, where there is no free press, where kids are taught to glorify suicide bombers, and where vast sums of foreign aid get sucked into rulers’ coffers – is a superior culture to Israel’s? Go ahead. I’m all ears. Enough of this blame-the-embargo crap. Israelis don’t make Palestinians steal foreign aid. Israelis don’t make Palestinians teach kids that the noblest calling is to blow themselves up in a pizzeria. Israelis don’t make Fatah and Hamas subject Palestinian journalists to  harassment, detentions, assaults, and restrictions.

Helpful hint: Any time your culture is dominated by organizations that have a “political wing” and some other not-political wing that often carries rifles and wears masks, you’re going to have some serious problems. Society can only hash out its differences in an orderly manner when the political wing is the organization as a whole.

Some, like Dave Weigel, are convinced that Obama’s recent “gaffes” are routine slips of the tongue or unclear verbiage and that Republicans are making a ridiculous stink over them – but that Romney’s statement in London is a legitimate story. It will not surprise you that I think precisely the opposite – but perhaps the newsworthiness and significance of a gaffe is going to be in the eye of the beholder.

The term “gaffe” now applies to…

Verbal misstatements and grammatical errors: “57 states,” Joe Biden calling his running mate “Barack America”, etc.

Brain freezes: Rick Perry in the debate. Of course this looks bad during a moment in the spotlight, but anyone who has never had this happen to them, raise your hand. Uh-huh. Didn’t think so.

Honest statements that are admissions against self-interest: President Obama declaring during a meeting of his Jobs Council, “Shovel-ready was not as … uh .. shovel-ready as we expected.”

Unusual ideas: Newt Gingrich’s pay-kids-to-be-janitors idea.

Genuinely harmful erroneous statements: Joe Biden saying, “I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” in an appearance designed to reassure the public about swine flu, or Michelle Bachmann repeating a mother’s claim that Gardasil causes retardation.

Controversial or unpopular points: See Romney’s Olympics and Palestinian statements above.

The only thing that these types of statements have in common is that they are “off-script,” or unpredicted. The same press corps that whines that candidates are cookie-cutter, stiff, scripted, sticking to predictable talking points, etc., loves to tear apart candidates for spontaneity, speaking casually, thinking out loud, and having things come out a little garbled.

In that light, how should we assess President Obama’s “the private sector is doing fine”, “if you have a business, you didn’t build that” and “our plan worked”? The argument from the president’s defenders is that each one is literally true and only sounds odd to those who don’t understand the context – that the private sector is creating jobs while state and local governments cut back, the “that” refers to roads and bridges, not the business itself, and the plan refers to Bill Clinton’s tax hikes, not Obama’s enacted policies. The problem is that all of these explanations aren’t as exculpatory as his fans think:

A)     If 80,000 or so jobs per month – not enough to keep up with workforce additions –  is your idea of “doing fine,” you’re setting the bar too low.

B)      Even if President Obama was talking about ‘roads and bridges,” business owners did indeed pay for that, through income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, and business taxes.

C)      Even if Obama meant Clinton’s tax hikes when he said our plan “worked,” he’s crediting the Clinton tax hikes are the cause of the 1990s economic boom – not the rise of the Internet in American life, the dot-com bubble, etc. “Our plan worked” contends we’re just one big tax hike away from restoring four percent annual GDP growth. Except that the tax hikes were enacted in 1993, and the boom didn’t start until 1996-1997.

The argument from Obama’s critics would be that the “gaffes” aren’t misstatements but signals of what Obama really thinks – that the private sector’s current growth rate really is “fine,” that he thinks businessmen smugly give themselves too much credit for their success and not enough credit to government, and that tax hikes are good for the economy. Perhaps Republicans read too much into these remarks … but perhaps not.

Anyway, carping that the press makes a big deal out of Republican gaffes and ignores Democrat ones is an old, well-founded, and tired complaint. But what’s striking is that the result of this culture of within the press corps is that at least three of the highest figures in the Democratic Party today are among those most prone to making statements that range from the bizarre to the outrageous to the unhinged… and they pay no discernible price for these habits. No matter what they say, the labels “dumb” or “foolish” never seem to stick to them.

Exhibit A: Vice President Joe Biden. “Big [blank]ing deal.” “When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television…” “You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent…. I’m not joking.” “The president has a big stick. I promise you.” “John’s last-minute economic plan does nothing to tackle the number-one job facing the middle class, and it happens to be, as Barack says, a three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S, jobs.”

Exhibit B: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. “The CIA misleads us all the time.” “We have to pass the bill so you can see what’s in it.” “Every month that we do not have an economic recovery package 500 million Americans lose their jobs.”

Exhibit C: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “You could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol.” Barack Obama would be helped by being a “light-skinned” African-American with “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” “Only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good.” “We in the Senate refer to Sen. Gillibrand as the hottest member.” “Chris Coons, everybody knows him in the Democratic caucus. He’s my pet. He’s my favorite candidate.”

I mention all this because Harry Reid is at it again.

Saying he had “no problem with somebody being really, really wealthy,” Reid sat up in his chair a bit before stirring the pot further. A month or so ago, he said, a person who had invested with Bain Capital called his office.

“Harry, he didn’t pay any taxes for 10 years,” Reid recounted the person as saying. “He didn’t pay taxes for 10 years! Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain,” said Reid. “But obviously he can’t release those tax returns. How would it look?”

Hey, a Nevadan told me Harry Reid runs an underground dungeon of hookers and gladiatorial games. Now, do I know that that’s true? Well, I’m not certain.

ADDENDA: Lori Ziganto offers the emphatic phrase of the week: “You can quote me on that, but attribute it to Bob Dylan.”


The Latest