Commentary Magazine


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.

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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