The Gaffability Index

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.

via Ruth Marcus: A gaffe a day keeps substance away – The Washington Post.

 

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.

  • Tom Hering

    The author wrote, “the curve for what counts as a gaffe has been dramatically lowered.” I think she meant, “the bar for what counts …” I guess blundering is infectious. :-D

  • Tom Hering

    The author wrote, “the curve for what counts as a gaffe has been dramatically lowered.” I think she meant, “the bar for what counts …” I guess blundering is infectious. :-D

  • SKPeterson

    Curves can also be “lowered.” Shifted is better, though. Perhaps that was an intentional grammar fox paw.

  • SKPeterson

    Curves can also be “lowered.” Shifted is better, though. Perhaps that was an intentional grammar fox paw.

  • fjsteve

    Tom, I think she was talking about the infamous Gaffer Curve. That is, the net worth of what comes out of any politician’s mouth increases as their career progresses but reaches a point of diminishing returns as they remain in longer than they should. Also know as the Biden Curve.

  • fjsteve

    Tom, I think she was talking about the infamous Gaffer Curve. That is, the net worth of what comes out of any politician’s mouth increases as their career progresses but reaches a point of diminishing returns as they remain in longer than they should. Also know as the Biden Curve.

  • Jon

    Surely she can’t mean to include the “you didn’t build that” slur as a faux gaffe that is really of no consequence and taken out of context by the opponents.

    Anybody believe the president’s explanation about what he meant about it being about roads and bridges?

    Even if it was what he meant, then the whole speach was a gaffe. As in, I can’t believe he’d come out and say that you didn’t build that, the government did, so you owe the government for your success.

  • Jon

    Surely she can’t mean to include the “you didn’t build that” slur as a faux gaffe that is really of no consequence and taken out of context by the opponents.

    Anybody believe the president’s explanation about what he meant about it being about roads and bridges?

    Even if it was what he meant, then the whole speach was a gaffe. As in, I can’t believe he’d come out and say that you didn’t build that, the government did, so you owe the government for your success.

  • DonS

    Ruth Marcus’ columns are continual gaffes. Many “gaffes”, such as “you didn’t build it” (Obama meant this, utterly), or Romney’s comments about the London Olympics (which were absolutely true) are political statements that perhaps got a reaction that was different or stronger than the politician expected, and the media and opposition seize on that response. Sometimes, it’s a clear error, like Joe Biden’s classic “Stand Up Chuck” line to the wheelchair bound veteran. It’s part of politics, except that the media often doesn’t play fair in reporting these things. Of course, pundits like Marcus seldom dissect the media coverage — it would make them uncomfortable, and might actually give their column some value.

  • DonS

    Ruth Marcus’ columns are continual gaffes. Many “gaffes”, such as “you didn’t build it” (Obama meant this, utterly), or Romney’s comments about the London Olympics (which were absolutely true) are political statements that perhaps got a reaction that was different or stronger than the politician expected, and the media and opposition seize on that response. Sometimes, it’s a clear error, like Joe Biden’s classic “Stand Up Chuck” line to the wheelchair bound veteran. It’s part of politics, except that the media often doesn’t play fair in reporting these things. Of course, pundits like Marcus seldom dissect the media coverage — it would make them uncomfortable, and might actually give their column some value.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I can’t figure out why people who criticize media coverage seem not to notice where the real problem is — namely, in the consumers of media stories. You know, us.

    The media covers gaffes because we like to read about gaffes. And we like to read about gaffes because, on average, we’re intellectually lazy and more interested in politics as sports than in analyzing actual policies and all that. It’s not as if there’s any lack of evidence for this on the Internet.

    Gaffes are the fast food of news: cheap, easily consumed, not challenging in any way, and ultimately offering the consumer little real benefit.

    But, again, this is our fault. We eat it up. The media knows this, and will serve up more of it for that reason.

    And if we really wanted to eat more healthy food, Burger King would serve that to us, too.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I can’t figure out why people who criticize media coverage seem not to notice where the real problem is — namely, in the consumers of media stories. You know, us.

    The media covers gaffes because we like to read about gaffes. And we like to read about gaffes because, on average, we’re intellectually lazy and more interested in politics as sports than in analyzing actual policies and all that. It’s not as if there’s any lack of evidence for this on the Internet.

    Gaffes are the fast food of news: cheap, easily consumed, not challenging in any way, and ultimately offering the consumer little real benefit.

    But, again, this is our fault. We eat it up. The media knows this, and will serve up more of it for that reason.

    And if we really wanted to eat more healthy food, Burger King would serve that to us, too.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    As to “you didn’t build that”, I suppose I shouldn’t expect right-wingers to interpret that in any other way than they have. It could be interpreted in a way that reflects negatively on Obama, so, naturally, it has been.

    If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

    I know it’s pointless to try to convince Republicans otherwise — anyone touting this quote at this point almost certainly wants to believe it’s true, regardless — but I’m a sucker for pointless endeavors.

    Look at the context there. What are the things that Obama is saying that someone else built: the American system. Roads and bridges. The Internet. The latter two are, obviously, products of government money. And, also obviously, have helped many, many businesses to thrive. Amazon.com doesn’t get credit for building the Internet, but it benefitted from it. Duh.

    But that’s not what you want to read into the speech. You know that Obama is a secret socialist, and he accidentally let that secret slip in this speech. If only people knew what Obama really thinks, they would be persuaded not to vote for him. So you make or share that image meme. Because it’s funny. Because it’s easy. It’s also disingenuous, but hey, that’s the way politics is played. Rah, rah, my team!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    As to “you didn’t build that”, I suppose I shouldn’t expect right-wingers to interpret that in any other way than they have. It could be interpreted in a way that reflects negatively on Obama, so, naturally, it has been.

    If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

    I know it’s pointless to try to convince Republicans otherwise — anyone touting this quote at this point almost certainly wants to believe it’s true, regardless — but I’m a sucker for pointless endeavors.

    Look at the context there. What are the things that Obama is saying that someone else built: the American system. Roads and bridges. The Internet. The latter two are, obviously, products of government money. And, also obviously, have helped many, many businesses to thrive. Amazon.com doesn’t get credit for building the Internet, but it benefitted from it. Duh.

    But that’s not what you want to read into the speech. You know that Obama is a secret socialist, and he accidentally let that secret slip in this speech. If only people knew what Obama really thinks, they would be persuaded not to vote for him. So you make or share that image meme. Because it’s funny. Because it’s easy. It’s also disingenuous, but hey, that’s the way politics is played. Rah, rah, my team!

  • rlewer

    Everybody has access to bridges, roads, and the internet, etc. paid for by taxpayers (not the government). Actually, it was the people that built that (infrastructure). Some people build with that. Others not so much. If Amazon is really a product of the government with no individual brains and hard work and risk, why doesn’t everyone own an “Amazon.”

    If you actually listen to the whole speech, the part that he really worked up on and got the cheers for was when he orated about how “successful” people really did nothing better than anyone else. Listen to his actual words and tone as he says that successful businessmen do not deserve to get more than anyone else. Listen to the roars of approval from the crowd.

  • rlewer

    Everybody has access to bridges, roads, and the internet, etc. paid for by taxpayers (not the government). Actually, it was the people that built that (infrastructure). Some people build with that. Others not so much. If Amazon is really a product of the government with no individual brains and hard work and risk, why doesn’t everyone own an “Amazon.”

    If you actually listen to the whole speech, the part that he really worked up on and got the cheers for was when he orated about how “successful” people really did nothing better than anyone else. Listen to his actual words and tone as he says that successful businessmen do not deserve to get more than anyone else. Listen to the roars of approval from the crowd.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Rlewer (@8):

    Everybody has access to bridges, roads, and the internet, etc. paid for by taxpayers (not the government).

    Yes, the government’s actions are funded by taxpayers.

    Actually, it was the people that built that (infrastructure).

    Yes, people did that at the behest of other people, who work in the government.

    If Amazon is really a product of the government with no individual brains and hard work and risk, why doesn’t everyone own an “Amazon.”

    Hello, straw man! Where did anyone say that Amazon.com required “no individual brains and hard work and risk” to create?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Rlewer (@8):

    Everybody has access to bridges, roads, and the internet, etc. paid for by taxpayers (not the government).

    Yes, the government’s actions are funded by taxpayers.

    Actually, it was the people that built that (infrastructure).

    Yes, people did that at the behest of other people, who work in the government.

    If Amazon is really a product of the government with no individual brains and hard work and risk, why doesn’t everyone own an “Amazon.”

    Hello, straw man! Where did anyone say that Amazon.com required “no individual brains and hard work and risk” to create?

  • SKPeterson

    Todd @ 7 – The issue with Obama’s gaffe, though, lies more in who he left out; he only mentioned or clarified in follow up remarks public sector employees or public works. No mention of the family, the church, the local youth soccer league or the small town banker who took a flyer on some risky gamble (or even some sort of venture capitalist firm like, oh say, rhymes with Rain). Capitalism does not produce success in a vacuum; it is built up over decades and centuries of hard work, sacrifice, ingenuity, and no small amount of failure. The political
    <conversationc would be better focused on whether success in a capitalist society is best served by private, free-market interactions, or by more state-directed and state

  • SKPeterson

    Todd @ 7 – The issue with Obama’s gaffe, though, lies more in who he left out; he only mentioned or clarified in follow up remarks public sector employees or public works. No mention of the family, the church, the local youth soccer league or the small town banker who took a flyer on some risky gamble (or even some sort of venture capitalist firm like, oh say, rhymes with Rain). Capitalism does not produce success in a vacuum; it is built up over decades and centuries of hard work, sacrifice, ingenuity, and no small amount of failure. The political
    <conversationc would be better focused on whether success in a capitalist society is best served by private, free-market interactions, or by more state-directed and state

  • SKPeterson

    stupid mobile – no delete key and won’t go to the end of the post.

    Anyway, I meant to finish with “state-mediated ones.”

  • SKPeterson

    stupid mobile – no delete key and won’t go to the end of the post.

    Anyway, I meant to finish with “state-mediated ones.”

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    SK (@10), that’s a fine question to ask, but all I’m trying to talk about was what Obama meant to say in his speech.

    That is to say, did he truly mean that “you didn’t build” your business, or did he mean “you didn’t build” the roads, Internet, and other infrastructure that are crucial to your business?

    It is difficult to see the former as a reasonable interpretation — unless one is less intent on being reasonable and more intent on demonizing the President.

    And whether in the future we’d best be served entirely by privately funded roads or not, the fact still remains: the vast majority of roads we have today were built by the government.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    SK (@10), that’s a fine question to ask, but all I’m trying to talk about was what Obama meant to say in his speech.

    That is to say, did he truly mean that “you didn’t build” your business, or did he mean “you didn’t build” the roads, Internet, and other infrastructure that are crucial to your business?

    It is difficult to see the former as a reasonable interpretation — unless one is less intent on being reasonable and more intent on demonizing the President.

    And whether in the future we’d best be served entirely by privately funded roads or not, the fact still remains: the vast majority of roads we have today were built by the government.

  • rlewer

    “Where did anyone say that Amazon.com required no individual brains, and hard work and risk to create?”

    Listen to the actual whole speech. That is exactly what Obama was saying that got all the cheers. He was telling them that the business men did not deserve that they were doing better financially than the people in the audience.

    Who said anything about privately funded roads? All roads and infrastructure are funded by the people including those who pay most of the taxes. The government produces no money. It only takes and uses money from others. With that money it sometimes does some useful things. It is business that produces products and wages that are taxed for the building of the infrastructure. Without them there is no economic activity for applying to the infrastructure. Obama got it backwards to the cheers of his followers.

  • rlewer

    “Where did anyone say that Amazon.com required no individual brains, and hard work and risk to create?”

    Listen to the actual whole speech. That is exactly what Obama was saying that got all the cheers. He was telling them that the business men did not deserve that they were doing better financially than the people in the audience.

    Who said anything about privately funded roads? All roads and infrastructure are funded by the people including those who pay most of the taxes. The government produces no money. It only takes and uses money from others. With that money it sometimes does some useful things. It is business that produces products and wages that are taxed for the building of the infrastructure. Without them there is no economic activity for applying to the infrastructure. Obama got it backwards to the cheers of his followers.

  • reg

    rlewer,
    Actually hearing the whole speech makes clear Obama was in no way saying what you claim he said. tODD is accurate in his assessment of what Obama said. I suspect that you spend too much time watching Faux News . and that has a tendency to dampen the brain’s higher cognitive abilities. Luckily if you take a few days off those functions should start coming back. :-)

  • reg

    rlewer,
    Actually hearing the whole speech makes clear Obama was in no way saying what you claim he said. tODD is accurate in his assessment of what Obama said. I suspect that you spend too much time watching Faux News . and that has a tendency to dampen the brain’s higher cognitive abilities. Luckily if you take a few days off those functions should start coming back. :-)

  • rlewer

    I don’t listen to Fox. I don’t even have cable. Why do you make false assumptions that anyone who disagrees with the liberal position is stupid and brainwashed?

    I heard the actual audio tape of the speech. This is called a primary source. The cheers when he pointed out that some did not deserve special success above those in the audience were very clear. How could you miss that?

  • rlewer

    I don’t listen to Fox. I don’t even have cable. Why do you make false assumptions that anyone who disagrees with the liberal position is stupid and brainwashed?

    I heard the actual audio tape of the speech. This is called a primary source. The cheers when he pointed out that some did not deserve special success above those in the audience were very clear. How could you miss that?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Rlewer (@13) said:

    Listen to the actual whole speech. That is exactly what Obama was saying that got all the cheers.

    Of course, cheers only tell us what other people heard, not what Obama meant, but it still would help if you could point us to the “exact” things Obama said by which he argued that Amazon.com required no individual brains, and hard work and risk to create. Because, well, I don’t see it.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Rlewer (@13) said:

    Listen to the actual whole speech. That is exactly what Obama was saying that got all the cheers.

    Of course, cheers only tell us what other people heard, not what Obama meant, but it still would help if you could point us to the “exact” things Obama said by which he argued that Amazon.com required no individual brains, and hard work and risk to create. Because, well, I don’t see it.

  • Jon

    @7 “You know that Obama is a secret socialist, and he accidentally let that secret slip in this speech.”

    Well, he’s not making it much of a secret any more, as this speech is just one indicator. If anything, I’d say he’s probably still “evolving” on this as well, and when the time is right, he’ll come out fully in support of socialism, too.

  • Jon

    @7 “You know that Obama is a secret socialist, and he accidentally let that secret slip in this speech.”

    Well, he’s not making it much of a secret any more, as this speech is just one indicator. If anything, I’d say he’s probably still “evolving” on this as well, and when the time is right, he’ll come out fully in support of socialism, too.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jon (@17), yes, very good, that speech was all about socialism. Yup, nail on the head there.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Jon (@17), yes, very good, that speech was all about socialism. Yup, nail on the head there.

  • Jon

    Todd, if it wasn’t about socialism agenda leaking out, then at least it was really really poor delivery on his part. If he meant to keep it about the benefits of the benevolent government that really did build it, then he should not have gone off TelePrompTer during his lecture.

  • Jon

    Todd, if it wasn’t about socialism agenda leaking out, then at least it was really really poor delivery on his part. If he meant to keep it about the benefits of the benevolent government that really did build it, then he should not have gone off TelePrompTer during his lecture.

  • Michael H.

    Before reading the comments, I made a prediction that they would not primarily be about the content of the article, but would mostly consist of superficially related arguing between left and right-wingers. So far, I was right.

  • Michael H.

    Before reading the comments, I made a prediction that they would not primarily be about the content of the article, but would mostly consist of superficially related arguing between left and right-wingers. So far, I was right.


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