Which gaffes stick

When a politician makes a mistake, sometimes it gets turned into a disqualification.  Sometimes it gets ignored.   Chris Cillizza explains which ones stick and which ones don’t:

Gaffes that matter are those that speak to a larger narrative about a candidate or a doubt/worry that voters already have about that particular candidate.

Take the gaffe du jour — Mitt Romney aide Erik Fehrnstrom’s reference to an Etch-a-Sketch when asked whether the former Massachusetts governor’s move to the ideological right in the primary would hurt him with general election voters.

The Etch-a-Sketch incident is likely to linger in the electorate because it speaks to a broader storyline already bouncing around the political world: That Romney lacks any core convictions and that he will say and do whatever it takes to win. (It IS worth noting that Romney didn’t say the Etch-a-Sketch line — making it less powerful and perhaps less long lasting.). . .

To that point, the Democratic National Committee released their second Etch-a-Sketch web video in as many days:

Contrast Fehnstrom’s gaffe with President Obama’s slip-up in May 2008 when he told a crowd in Oregon: “Over the last 15 months, we’ve traveled to every corner of the United States. I’ve now been in 57 states?”

Conservatives insisted that the reason that gaffe didn’t get enough attention was because of the media’s favoritism directed toward Obama. But, the truth is that the “57 states” comment didn’t become a defining moment in the 2008 campaign because there was no “Obama isn’t smart enough to be president” narrative out there. Democrats, independents and even many Republicans agreed that Obama had the intellectual goods to be president although there was considerable disagreement about whether his policies were the right fit for the country.

While Obama’s “57 states” gaffe never caught on, his comments about rural voters “clinging” to their religion and their guns — made at a fundraising event in California — became a huge problem for his campaign. Why? Because there was an “Obama as elitist” narrative already in the political bloodstream that his “cling” comments played directly into.

Recent (and even not-so-recent) political campaigns are filled with gaffes that prove our point.

* Massachusetts Sen John Kerry’s order of swiss cheese on his cheesesteak mattered because he was already fighting against the idea that he was out of touch with average Americans.

* Rick Perry’s “oops” moment mattered because from the second the Texas governor announced his 2012 candidacy for president there were questions about whether or not he was up to the task.

* George H.W. Bush looking at his watch during a presidential debate in the 1992 campaign mattered because there was a already a sense in the electorate that the incumbent president was aloof and uncaring.

* Edmund Muskie’s tearing up in New Hampshire during the 1972 presidential campaign mattered because it reinforced the idea kicking around in political circles that he was emotionally unstable and prone to burst of temper.

via The Etch-a-Sketch incident and the art of the political gaffe – The Washington Post.

But the “narratives” have to come from somewhere, usually from things candidates do and say, including other gaffes.  What turns a gaffe into a narrative, which then shapes which other gaffes are meaningful, seems to be a different process, with political spinners playing a big role.

And along this line, what do you think about President Obama’s latest gaffe, in which he gets caught on an open microphone telling the president of Russia to give him “space” until he is re-elected, whereupon he will be able to be more “flexible” in presumably giving the Russians what they want on a missile defense agreement.  Will that one stick?  Should it?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Don’t forget Howard Dean’s banshee scream.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Don’t forget Howard Dean’s banshee scream.

  • Carl Vehse

    “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon”

    “I’ve got two daughters. 9 years old and 6 years old. I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals. But if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.”

    “And a lot of those men and women who we celebrate on Veterans Day and Memorial Day come back and find that, when it comes to finding a job or getting the kind of care that they need, we’re not always there the way we need to be.”

    “John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith.”

    “And I am running for president, because the dreams of the American People can not be endangered anymore.”

    Zero: “I got friends who are on the far right.”
    Bill Reilly: Who?
    Zero: There… I’ve got colleagues in the Senate…
    Bill Reilly: Give me a name.
    Zero: I… uh… I… uh… uh… uh…

    “My friends, we live in the greatest nation in the history of the world. I hope you’ll join with me as we try to change it.”

    “… countries like Europe…”

    WTF: “Winning the Future”

    Many, many other Obozo gaffes (with links) can be seen in the Handy Reference Guide to Obama’s Gaffes and Goofs

  • Carl Vehse

    “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon”

    “I’ve got two daughters. 9 years old and 6 years old. I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals. But if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.”

    “And a lot of those men and women who we celebrate on Veterans Day and Memorial Day come back and find that, when it comes to finding a job or getting the kind of care that they need, we’re not always there the way we need to be.”

    “John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith.”

    “And I am running for president, because the dreams of the American People can not be endangered anymore.”

    Zero: “I got friends who are on the far right.”
    Bill Reilly: Who?
    Zero: There… I’ve got colleagues in the Senate…
    Bill Reilly: Give me a name.
    Zero: I… uh… I… uh… uh… uh…

    “My friends, we live in the greatest nation in the history of the world. I hope you’ll join with me as we try to change it.”

    “… countries like Europe…”

    WTF: “Winning the Future”

    Many, many other Obozo gaffes (with links) can be seen in the Handy Reference Guide to Obama’s Gaffes and Goofs

  • Kirk

    @1 BEEEYAH!

  • Kirk

    @1 BEEEYAH!

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Gaffes are just gaffes. I don’t make much of them – GWB was famous for his, as are many other politicians. Gaffe-hay making is tabloid politics.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Gaffes are just gaffes. I don’t make much of them – GWB was famous for his, as are many other politicians. Gaffe-hay making is tabloid politics.

  • Steve Billingsley

    I am with Klasie on this one. Gaffes aren’t game changers to me. If you or I had the kind of media scrutiny on all of our words, we would likely throw out some real whoppers. The only way to really make a proper judgment on whether or not you support a candidate or not is their record over a fairly extended period of time. Sound bites or stupid statements aren’t in and of themselves that big of a deal. A pattern of them might indicate something significant, but it would have to be in keeping with their actions.

  • Steve Billingsley

    I am with Klasie on this one. Gaffes aren’t game changers to me. If you or I had the kind of media scrutiny on all of our words, we would likely throw out some real whoppers. The only way to really make a proper judgment on whether or not you support a candidate or not is their record over a fairly extended period of time. Sound bites or stupid statements aren’t in and of themselves that big of a deal. A pattern of them might indicate something significant, but it would have to be in keeping with their actions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I’m with KK @4. Making a big deal of a gaffe is not an argument for, or a rebuttal against anything.

    However, I don’t believe that what President Obama told Medvedev falls into the “gaffe” class. He didn’t misspeak.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I’m with KK @4. Making a big deal of a gaffe is not an argument for, or a rebuttal against anything.

    However, I don’t believe that what President Obama told Medvedev falls into the “gaffe” class. He didn’t misspeak.

  • Tom Hering

    Gaffe: “An unintentional act or remark causing embarrassment to its originator; a blunder.” Obama unintentionally revealing a confidence over an open microphone qualifies.

  • Tom Hering

    Gaffe: “An unintentional act or remark causing embarrassment to its originator; a blunder.” Obama unintentionally revealing a confidence over an open microphone qualifies.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Well, OK then.

    Letting the remark be heard over an open microphone may have been a gaffe.

    But the remark itself wasn’t.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    Well, OK then.

    Letting the remark be heard over an open microphone may have been a gaffe.

    But the remark itself wasn’t.

  • Tom Hering

    The gaffe was primarily in the remark being overheard, but only because the nature of the remark was potentially damaging to Obama. So the remark itself is part of the gaffe.

  • Tom Hering

    The gaffe was primarily in the remark being overheard, but only because the nature of the remark was potentially damaging to Obama. So the remark itself is part of the gaffe.

  • Jon

    Don’t forget Carl’s parents. :)

  • Jon

    Don’t forget Carl’s parents. :)

  • DonS

    Obama’s gaffe needs to be explored. Why does he think having “more flexibility” after the election matters? What are his intentions? The voters have a right to know what his preferred foreign policy goals are, and the press has an obligation to hammer the point until he is forced to clarify his thoughts on the issue. But, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • DonS

    Obama’s gaffe needs to be explored. Why does he think having “more flexibility” after the election matters? What are his intentions? The voters have a right to know what his preferred foreign policy goals are, and the press has an obligation to hammer the point until he is forced to clarify his thoughts on the issue. But, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    From the article:

    Gaffes that matter are those that speak to a larger narrative about a candidate or a doubt/worry that voters already have about that particular candidate.

    Hmm. That seems to miss the mark a bit. Gaffes that get repeated and amplified are those that fit the largely pre-conceived template that has been foisted upon the candidate — and that largely by the media.

    But the media that does this shaping is typically not the news media as much as the entertainment media — a point that “conservative” media critics often miss. Sure, entertainment and news aren’t exactly orthogonal, but still, it was mainly the comedians who made Al Gore (and Kerry, and Romney) out to be ersatz and wooden, and George W. Bush out to be a blithering idiot — with op-ed columnists (who aren’t actually news reporters) not far behind.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    From the article:

    Gaffes that matter are those that speak to a larger narrative about a candidate or a doubt/worry that voters already have about that particular candidate.

    Hmm. That seems to miss the mark a bit. Gaffes that get repeated and amplified are those that fit the largely pre-conceived template that has been foisted upon the candidate — and that largely by the media.

    But the media that does this shaping is typically not the news media as much as the entertainment media — a point that “conservative” media critics often miss. Sure, entertainment and news aren’t exactly orthogonal, but still, it was mainly the comedians who made Al Gore (and Kerry, and Romney) out to be ersatz and wooden, and George W. Bush out to be a blithering idiot — with op-ed columnists (who aren’t actually news reporters) not far behind.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think this Etch-a-Sketch thing is pretty stupid, personally. It definitely hasn’t gained any traction among my social-media connections — who, being largely liberal, have every reason to seize on such a gaffe.

    Of course, I also thought the Kerry/cheesesteak thing was stupid, because outside of the insular world of Pennsylvania cheesesteak purists, I’d argue most Americans are “out of touch” on what kind of cheese you’re allowed to put on a cheesesteak. And if you think Swiss cheese is too aloof, you have issues.

    As for this Obama/Medvedev issue, you’ll never guess how I also feel about it.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think this Etch-a-Sketch thing is pretty stupid, personally. It definitely hasn’t gained any traction among my social-media connections — who, being largely liberal, have every reason to seize on such a gaffe.

    Of course, I also thought the Kerry/cheesesteak thing was stupid, because outside of the insular world of Pennsylvania cheesesteak purists, I’d argue most Americans are “out of touch” on what kind of cheese you’re allowed to put on a cheesesteak. And if you think Swiss cheese is too aloof, you have issues.

    As for this Obama/Medvedev issue, you’ll never guess how I also feel about it.

  • Carl Vehse

    More of Barack’s children adding to the gaffes, like their fellow hoodie, Trayvon.

  • Carl Vehse

    More of Barack’s children adding to the gaffes, like their fellow hoodie, Trayvon.

  • Tom Hering

    Carl, you’re disgusting.

  • Tom Hering

    Carl, you’re disgusting.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X