Commentary Magazine


Topic: political gaffes

Not All Political Gaffes Are Created Equal

With this year’s Senate races starting to heat up, the media (and opposition research trackers from the campaigns) are going over anything said or released by anyone running for the kind of gaffe that can turn a race around. Examples, like former Senator George Allen’s weird “macaca” insult thrown at a Democratic operative in 2006 or Todd Akin’s obtuse comments about rape and pregnancy, keep staffers searching for mistakes like ’49ers panning for gold.

This week, we had two major gaffes by senatorial campaigns that left the candidates—Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley—with egg on their faces. But while both got considerable and deserved coverage, a close look at the two demonstrates that not all political gaffes are created equal. While McConnell was embarrassed by the error made by the people who produced a campaign video, Braley’s taped comments dismissing Iowa Senator Charles Grassley as a mere “farmer from Iowa” may well rank with Allen or Akin’s gaffes. Even worse, like Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” line, also made at a fundraiser to what he presumed was a friendly audience, Braley’s indiscretion may transform him from a likely winner to a candidate who may turn a blue seat into a red one in November.

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With this year’s Senate races starting to heat up, the media (and opposition research trackers from the campaigns) are going over anything said or released by anyone running for the kind of gaffe that can turn a race around. Examples, like former Senator George Allen’s weird “macaca” insult thrown at a Democratic operative in 2006 or Todd Akin’s obtuse comments about rape and pregnancy, keep staffers searching for mistakes like ’49ers panning for gold.

This week, we had two major gaffes by senatorial campaigns that left the candidates—Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell and Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley—with egg on their faces. But while both got considerable and deserved coverage, a close look at the two demonstrates that not all political gaffes are created equal. While McConnell was embarrassed by the error made by the people who produced a campaign video, Braley’s taped comments dismissing Iowa Senator Charles Grassley as a mere “farmer from Iowa” may well rank with Allen or Akin’s gaffes. Even worse, like Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” line, also made at a fundraiser to what he presumed was a friendly audience, Braley’s indiscretion may transform him from a likely winner to a candidate who may turn a blue seat into a red one in November.

The two mistakes in question were the kind designed to generate coverage. In the case of McConnell, it concerned a campaign video posted on the Internet that featured a montage of images while the voice of the candidate is heard promising what he will do if he takes over as majority leader of the Senate next year, something that requires not only major Republican gains around the country, but also his reelection in what promises to be a tough race against Alison Lundergan Grimes. One of the final images seen is a brief glimpse of basketball players wearing blue and white jerseys celebrating a victory. But unfortunately for McConnell, the players on the court are not members of the University of Kentucky’s 2012 NCAA champions but those of Duke University’s 2010 winners of the same title (who wear the same colors but with a different name on their shirts). Suffice it to say that McConnell will never hear the end of this in basketball-mad Kentucky.

But there is a difference between a video montage created by a staff—and which appears for approximately two seconds on the screen—and the sort of elitist contempt displayed by Braley. As Tom Bevan wrote on RealClearPolitics about the incident, it’s hard to understand why a candidate in this day and age doesn’t assume that the “camera is on” no matter where they are and to whom they are speaking. It is also astonishing that someone running for office in an agricultural state would disparage a farmer in any context.

The context in question, which Democratic apologists have cited, is that he was discussing the fact that if the Republicans take control of the Senate, Grassley, the state’s senior senator, will become the chair of the Judiciary Committee. This is something that Braley, a trial lawyer by profession who was speaking to a group of trial lawyers at a Dallas fundraiser, regards with horror not only because Grassley is a Republican but because he isn’t a lawyer. Perhaps most lawyers feel the same way, but the odds are, most voters in any state view the matter differently. If anything, the fact that Grassley isn’t a lawyer would probably be an argument in favor of the GOP since most Americans think lawyers already have too much influence in Congress. And it’s probably a given that most Iowans think there’s nothing wrong with having a farmer—even one that’s served on the Judiciary Committee for many years—telling the lawyers what to do.

Thus, rather than just an embarrassing gaffe that could be viewed as an insult to the honor of Iowa and made up for by enough groveling tributes to agriculture by Braley, the video of him showing disrespect for Grassley’s qualifications is the kind of mistake that voters understand gives them an insight into the candidate’s character. That’s something the Republican candidate will take full advantage of, especially if it turns out to be State Senator Joni Ernst, who has been stumping the state bragging that she will make Washington squeal the same way that the pigs she castrated back on her family farm did. Interestingly, that line seems to have Ernst, who was widely seen as more a favorite of establishment Republicans than Tea Partiers or social conservatives, Sarah Palin’s endorsement this week.

Unlike McConnell’s blooper, Braley’s mistake could help cost the Democrats a seat (currently held by the retiring Tom Harkin) they can ill afford to lose.

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War of the Late October Gaffes

Last night while appearing on the Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, President Obama should have considered how to phrase his feelings on the deaths of four Americans in Libya a bit more carefully. Here is the exchange in full context:

Stewart: I would say, even you would admit, it was not the optimal response, at least to the American people, as far as all of us being on the same page.

Obama: Here’s what I’ll say: If four Americans get killed, it’s not optimal.

“Not optimal” is, obviously, an understatement, when discussing the deaths of four Americans, including the first American ambassador to die in the line of duty since 1979. It’s clear from the context of the interview, however, that the president is using Stewart’s phrase to make clear that he agrees that what happened in Benghazi on September 11 of this year was unacceptable.

What this exchange showcases, however, is the lack of scrutiny Obama’s gaffes seem to elicit from the media.
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Last night while appearing on the Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, President Obama should have considered how to phrase his feelings on the deaths of four Americans in Libya a bit more carefully. Here is the exchange in full context:

Stewart: I would say, even you would admit, it was not the optimal response, at least to the American people, as far as all of us being on the same page.

Obama: Here’s what I’ll say: If four Americans get killed, it’s not optimal.

“Not optimal” is, obviously, an understatement, when discussing the deaths of four Americans, including the first American ambassador to die in the line of duty since 1979. It’s clear from the context of the interview, however, that the president is using Stewart’s phrase to make clear that he agrees that what happened in Benghazi on September 11 of this year was unacceptable.

What this exchange showcases, however, is the lack of scrutiny Obama’s gaffes seem to elicit from the media.

The media narrative for this campaign has, in large part, become set by the talking points of the Obama campaign and young, liberal Tumblr creators. The latest Romney “gaffe” has become, as Alana mentioned earlier, an absolutely exhausting display of liberal faux-outrage, a desperate attempt to drag down Romney’s soaring poll numbers. The media has had an incredible ability to beat to death any real or imagined Romney gaffes while ignoring far more egregious ones from President Obama.

This media focus solely on gaffes, however, may end up hurting the Obama campaign in the long run. The Romney campaign is forced to set its messaging and imaging as precisely as possible, focusing on incredibly minor details in order to avoid a media firestorm. The Romney team knows that any minor misstep is a potential catastrophe, while the Obama campaign has the security in knowing that they abide by a different set of rules. Romney joked about the double-standard last night at the Al Smith dinner, telling the crowd: “And I’ve already seen early reports from tonight’s dinner, headline; “Obama Embraced by Catholics. Romney Dines with Rich People.”

Does this mean that during Monday’s foreign policy debate Romney should mention this Obama statement for an American public that hasn’t heard about “not optimal” in the mainstream media? In a word: No. The Romney campaign has spent the time since the debates began focusing on real issues, not binders and Big Bird. Romney’s success since the first debate can largely be attributed to the fact that before this, Americans had only passing glimpses at the Republican nominee. The night of the first debate many voters realized, for the first time, that Romney is more than a rich, robotic white male. During the first debate he unquestionably performed better than President Obama, and during the second, on the issue that matters to most voters most, the economy, Romney again appeared more capable according to viewer polls. The media’s attempts to paint a caricature of Romney post-debates will certainly be met with far less success than earlier this summer, when Democratic attacks on a “War on Women” actually gained traction among voters, especially females. Now that the American people have seen the candidates speak unfiltered, they understand just what an exaggeration Romney’s supposed gaffes on Big Bird and binders truly are. Only one of the men on stage is running a presidential campaign. The other is, at best, running for student council.

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Gaffes Alone Won’t Stop Romney

Let’s specify that Mitt Romney probably would have been better off keeping any doubts about London’s preparations for the Olympic Games to himself. The British press jumped on the supposed insult to the United Kingdom implied in Romney’s description of the preparations being “disconcerting” and his question about whether the event would be embraced by the people of London. Prime Minister David Cameron, whose desire to emulate Barack Obama has at times bordered on the embarrassing, was just as quick in firing back at Romney by claiming that it was harder to organize an Olympics in London than “in the middle of nowhere,” which no doubt will not endear him to the people of Utah (where the GOP candidate headed up the 2002 Winter Games).

While the American media following Romney is declaring his trip a disaster even before it has gone on for one day, there’s no reason for Republicans to panic. Though the remark must be acknowledged as a gaffe, those claiming Romney has sunk the special relationship between the two countries seem to forget that supporters of a president who gave Cameron’s predecessor a set of movie DVDs that can’t be played on British systems are in no position to squawk too much about minor diplomatic errors. Yet, even if we acknowledge that Romney has once again shot himself in the foot, his gaffes are tribute to his awkward personal manner, not ignorance or incapacity. So while they are embarrassing and may get him off message, they are not the sort of thing that can do him serious political damage.

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Let’s specify that Mitt Romney probably would have been better off keeping any doubts about London’s preparations for the Olympic Games to himself. The British press jumped on the supposed insult to the United Kingdom implied in Romney’s description of the preparations being “disconcerting” and his question about whether the event would be embraced by the people of London. Prime Minister David Cameron, whose desire to emulate Barack Obama has at times bordered on the embarrassing, was just as quick in firing back at Romney by claiming that it was harder to organize an Olympics in London than “in the middle of nowhere,” which no doubt will not endear him to the people of Utah (where the GOP candidate headed up the 2002 Winter Games).

While the American media following Romney is declaring his trip a disaster even before it has gone on for one day, there’s no reason for Republicans to panic. Though the remark must be acknowledged as a gaffe, those claiming Romney has sunk the special relationship between the two countries seem to forget that supporters of a president who gave Cameron’s predecessor a set of movie DVDs that can’t be played on British systems are in no position to squawk too much about minor diplomatic errors. Yet, even if we acknowledge that Romney has once again shot himself in the foot, his gaffes are tribute to his awkward personal manner, not ignorance or incapacity. So while they are embarrassing and may get him off message, they are not the sort of thing that can do him serious political damage.

There are serious questions to be asked about the London Olympics, including the wisdom of the massive expenditure of funds at a time when Britain is suffering through austerity budgets as well as the fact that almost all Olympic hosts are generally left worse off than before they started. But because Romney is an unrepentant Olympic booster, he is probably the last person to pose such questions.

This kerfuffle does once again illustrate his capacity for running his mouth when he should keep it shut. Throughout the primary campaign we saw that the GOP candidate had the capacity to sometimes say far too much. Though a serious thinker about policy, he lacks the natural politician’s instinct to say what should be said at times as well as the same ability to avoid unguarded utterances. Obama’s cool and scripted responses have proven that avoiding gaffes is no guarantee of wisdom. But Romney’s team must come to terms with the fact that their man is always going to be vulnerable to moments like these. No amount of insulation from the press is going to stop him from saying things like this again.

But unless Romney liberates Poland as Gerald Ford did in a 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter (an example of a real policy gaffe), this sort of thing won’t do him much political damage. After all, Romney is in London for a photo opportunity and to raise money or to win British votes.

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