Ruth Marcus observes how our political discourse–or at least the media coverage of that discourse–has become little more than a tallying of gaffes and faux-gaffes:
The 2012 presidential campaign has become a festival of gaffe-hopping.
The candidates skitter along on the surface of politics, issuing vague pronouncements or taking predictable shots at each other. But these seem like increasingly brief interludes, mere campaign busywork as each side awaits and — abetted by an attention-deficit-disordered media — pounces on the opponents’ next gaffe.
Or supposed gaffe. The 2012 campaign has witnessed the full flowering of the faux gaffe, in which a candidate is skewered, generally out of context, for saying something that he clearly did not mean but that the other side finds immensely useful to misrepresent. . . .
It was almost 30 years ago that columnist Michael Kinsley wrote that “the ‘gaffe’ is now the principal dynamic mechanism of American politics.”
Prompted by a now-obscure Gary Hart gaffe (the candidate dissed New Jersey and proceeded to lose its primary), Kinsley wrote that “journalists record each new gaffe, weigh it on their Gaffability Index (‘major gaffe,’ ‘gaffe,’ ‘minor gaffe,’ ‘possible gaffe’ . . .), and move the players forward or backward on the game board accordingly.”
But the 2012 campaign, more than any I can recall, feels like all gaffe all the time. The curve for what counts as a gaffe has been dramatically lowered. Meanwhile, attention to the most minor of gaffes has been enhanced to deafening levels, drowning out, or at least taking the place of, other discussion. . . .
Should gaffes matter? Do they? Yes, but with reservations. Gaffes can expose candidates’ factual ignorance or intellectual shortcomings (see you later, Rick Perry and Herman Cain). Gaffes can reveal candidates’ characterological failures as well — a tendency to self-important puffery, undisciplined bloviating or politically convenient shape-shifting. Indeed, the more the gaffe, real or imagined, reinforces the preexisting image of the candidate, the greater damage it will inflict. Ask Dan Quayle about spelling “potatoe.”
So there is a legitimate place for gaffe coverage — in perspective. Take Romney’s not-so-excellent European vacation. His mildly derisive comment about preparations for the London Olympics was dumb, even if it fit the classic Kinsleyian definition of gaffe as a politician saying something truthful in public. . . .
So I’m not against gaffe coverage — I’m against covering only gaffes, which is where campaign reporting seems to be trending. I’m not against politicians’ seizing on opponents’ gaffes — I’m against politicians who believe, or act as if they believe, that this tactic can substitute for substantive campaign discussion.
There is a dangerous mismatch between the seriousness of the moment and this too-often-dominant form of political discourse. Americans like to think we choose presidents on the basis of who has the best vision for leading the country. We are at risk of electing the candidate least apt to make a clumsy remark.