Mitt Romney said, “Corporations are people.” Newt Gingrich castigated “right-wing social engineering.” Michele Bachmann claimed that she shared the same spirit as someone else born in Waterloo, Iowa, John Wayne. But it wasn’t the movie star with whom she shared a birthplace but serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
These politically-damaging statements were heralded as “gaffes.” But what makes a gaffe, as opposed to a forgivable misstatement or an inconsequential mistake? Journalist Paul Waldman, a liberal, by the way, explains:
What makes an incident or gaffe “major” is the interpretation that journalists — and these days, the blogosphere and Twitterverse as well — give it. Some mistakes are largely ignored, while others are portrayed as enormously consequential and haunt the candidate for weeks or months. The difference reveals far more about journalistic biases than it does about the candidates themselves. . . .
All of these misstatements had something in common: They reinforced what many people — including reporters — already thought about the candidate in question. That’s why the incidents became “news.”
In Gingrich’s case, reporters have long believed him to be undisciplined and erratic. Romney is supposed to be not only a creature of big business but inauthentic as well, awkwardly trying to ingratiate himself with voters. (Sometimes derided as “Romneybot,” he’d be the one to see no difference between corporations and human beings.) Pawlenty is thought by some to be unprepared for the hardball of a presidential campaign, while Bachmann is considered an intellectual or policy lightweight — a “flake,” as Chris Wallace so ungraciously saidto her on “Fox News Sunday.”The politicians’ so-called gaffes don’t tell us anything new. Instead, they allow reporters to explain how what they’ve thought all along about a candidate is true. . . .
John McCain was a grumpy old man, George W. Bush was dumb, John Kerry was a stiff patrician, Al Gore was dishonest and self-aggrandizing. Every politician is defined by what is allegedly his or her biggest character flaw.
If the candidate’s misstep doesn’t hew to the stereotype, chances are it’ll be soon forgotten. During a 2008 stop in Oregon, then-Sen. Barack Obama noted that he had visited “57 states” during his presidential campaign. Despite the efforts of some GOP partisans, the mainstream media quickly moved on; most journalists assumed Obama knew the right number and had simply misspoken. Today, if Bachmann says something that sounds like an awkward attempt to ingratiate herself with voters, reporters won’t speed-dial their editors. If Romney makes a factual error about the founding fathers, it will be greeted with a yawn. He’s supposed to be the insincere one without a handle on human interaction, and she’s supposed to be the dolt.
The result is profoundly unequal treatment of candidates. Get branded as dishonest, and reporters will pore over your statements to see if you’ve ever strayed from the truth; if they find that you have, they’ll assume it was an intentional deception and not a mistake. (Just ask Gore, who never actually claimed that he invented the Internet.) Get a reputation as a fool, and the same error will be presented as yet more evidence that you lack the intellect for whatever job you’re seeking.
There’s nothing partisan about it. Think about the 2008 election. When McCain was unable to recall how many houses he owned, the stories about it were as good a mark as any that the character judgment reporters were making about him had shifted. No longer the much-admired “maverick,” McCain had become just another rich, out-of-touch Republican. But his opponent got off no easier: When Obama was secretly recorded saying that white working-class voters in the Rust Belt, in the face of their economic struggles, “cling to guns or religion,” it allowed reporters to place him in the stereotype of Democrats as cultural elitists. Both episodes became major stories.
These gaffes rarely concern substantive policy issues — in fact, the less they are about policy, the more likely they are to stick. Mischaracterize your opponent’s tax plan and observers will barely bat an eye, but pad your résumé, and your fundamental character will be questioned.
And of course, “character” is the primary theme of all campaign coverage — not what candidates will do once they take office, but who they are deep within. The gaffe is supposed to reveal this inner character, to strip away the carefully crafted veneer and show the real person. And sometimes it can.
Can you think of other gaffes? Does this analysis apply? What gaffes will the media be looking for from Rick Perry? Ron Paul? Barack Obama?