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?

Playing to the local yokels

We’ve posted about various kinds of condescension to Southerners and Oklahomans (not exactly the same).  Here is another kind, one seemingly more friendly and yet just as ignorant and ridiculous.  Whenever politicians of both parties visit a Southern state to which they are not native to campaign, they try to affect a Southern accent and pretend to Southern folkways!  Thus, when when Mitt Romney visited Southern states for Super Tuesday, he was all “ya’ll” and “grits” (which he called “cheesy grits” instead of “cheese grits”–the funny part is that when they try to sound like they are just like their audience they nearly always get it wrong).  But, again, all politicians do this, as do many regular visitors to these states, as Melinda Henneberger observes:

His hat-tip to “cheesy grits” didn’t win over the locals, some of whom thought he was making fun of them. . . .

And if some of the coverage seemed skewed towards Southerners from central casting, well, as my late friend the New York Times reporter Allen Myerson once wryly observed, “You can never go wrong pandering to the prejudices of your editors.”

With Louisiana yet to vote, on March 24th, and thus more wonder at the diverse region’s quaint and colorful folk ways yet to be expressed, I’m here to tell you how the hog eats the cabbage: The idea that Southerners have any wish to hear politicians from other parts of the country talk like them is silly.

Still, lots of pols who go South do try to go native, with varying degrees of success. Barack Obama, who as everyone knows was born in southern Hawaii, can drop his g’s without any fear of embarrassing himself.

Whereas Hillary Clinton, after all those years as a Yankee in Bubba’s Little Rock, wisely made no further forays into her husband’s patois after that disastrous day in Selma in March of ’07 when she sounded like Scarlett’s Mammy quoting Rev. James Cleveland’s hymm, “I don’t feel noways tired.”

There may be something in the sweet tea, because Rick Santorum’s accent during his victory speech on Tuesday night was a little more deep fried than usual.

And Obama, if you recall, talked about his love of biscuits and grits on the stump in ’08 – oh, but that was in Evansville, Indiana, where they’re not on the menu, so that wasn’t so much pandering as just confused.

In any case, I move that we give all office seekers a pass in this regard, because many of us who aren’t running for anything do the same thing.

via Why Romney’s grits are fried – She the People: – The Washington Post.

Well, I don’t think anyone should give them a pass.  This sort of thing is brazenly fake, condescending, and the flip side of mockery.  It testifies to authenticity and the lack thereof.

Enough with the “war” metaphor

Charles Lane is sick of the “war” metaphor in political discourse, something all sides are doing:

The Democratic National Committee accuses the GOP of a “Republican War on Women,” to go along with its “war on working families” (according to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee) and “Paul Ryan’s war on seniors” (Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky).

Various Republicans accuse President Obama of waging “war on religious freedom” or even, in the words of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, “a war on religion.” According to the Republican National Committee, the president is also waging “war on energy,” the sequel, apparently, to what the House Republican Leadership has called “Democrats’ war on American jobs.”

Progressive author Chris Mooney called his book “The Republican War on Science”; not to be outdone, conservatives Grover Norquist and John R. Lott Jr. have published “Debacle: Obama’s War on Jobs and Growth.”

A Washington Times editorial warned Wisconsin taxpayers that “President Obama and the Democratic National Committee have declared war on you.” “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau observes that “[Rick] Santorum, [Rush] Limbaugh, et al. thought this would be a good time to declare war on half the electorate.”

And on and on and on — until you could almost lose sight of the fact that not one of these institutions or individuals is describing a physical conflict in which people fight, bleed and die.

There are, of course, plenty of real wars raging around the world; in some of them, Americans are dying. But the folks back home, busy with their election-year quarrels, have little interest in discussing such matters.

No, what the metaphor-mongers are referring to is political disagreement among citizens of the same democracy. And the last time I checked, most of those disagreements were being expressed through peaceful means — and neither side in any of these debates had a monopoly on the truth.

To be sure, we have been waging “war on” this or that for decades. America is such a diverse and disputatious country that war, actual or metaphorical, has been one of the few causes capable of bringing together its various factions, regions and races. That is why we had Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, Richard Nixon’s war on drugs and a series of presidents’ war on cancer. Heck, even Jimmy Carter tried to convince us that saving energy was “the moral equivalent of war.”

These metaphors attempted to recast an abstract threat as a particular enemy, thereby rallying the country to a common effort.

That is totally different from what the professional polarizers who dominate today’s politics, and their respective media allies, are trying to achieve. . . .

For both parties, the goal is to encourage Americans to think of one another as enemies and, eventually, to hate and fear one another. Today’s “wars on” are all civil wars. . . .

Multiplied across the entire electorate, however, the effect may be more corrosive. To the extent that sensible citizens tune out politics, they abandon the field to people who are receptive to constant cries of war, war, war — people who are prepared to think of their opponents as enemies.

When you think of someone as an enemy, it’s harder to contemplate trusting, respecting or cooperating with him or her. Indeed, those behaviors start to look like treason, instead of what they really are: the minimum requirements of democratic life.

via In the war of words, we are all losing – The Washington Post.

War imagery is a staple of today’s Christian discourse too.  We have “worship wars,” “the battle for the Bible,” and, of course, the “culture wars.”   I’ve sometimes used that kind of language myself.

Is it appropriate sometimes?  Or does it short-circuit thought, riling people up and creating “enemies” while doing more harm than good?

In defense of politics

“Politics” has become a dirty word.  As in: “It’s just politics.”  “They are just playing politics.”  “He’s just another politician.”  This is understandable, but also dangerous.  So says Alec MacGillis, an editor at the New Republic,  who examines a number of recent decisions derided as “political” by liberals and conservatives, showing that it was a good thing that lawmakers had to take the political process–that is to say, voters–into account.  Some of his comments:

It’s not surprising that “political” is an insult. Congress is gridlocked, with a 10 percent approval rating, and the 2012 campaign ads are doing their best to turn voters off.

But there is something troubling about the extent to which our leaders have made politics their bogeyman. Most important issues, from reproductive health to clean-energy investment, are riddled with politics — as they should be. They involve serious questions about what the country values and where it wants to invest its resources. To suggest that one’s own side is free of politics is not only sanctimonious, it’s also destructive. Demonizing politics leads Americans to disengage further from the sphere where big decisions are made, ceding the political realm to the very people who denigrate it at every opportunity.

Politics in its highest form has noble roots, going back to the Greeks — it is the art of government, of ordering life among a people. . . . .

Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of that decision, it was rightfully a political one. Who would we rather have making these decisions — our elected representatives, acting with the input of experts such as FDA scientists but also with an ear to their constituents, or the experts alone? The experts often have their own biases, such as industry ties. Elected officials are at least somewhat accountable to all of us. . . .

Our tendency to view the “political” as something separate from, rather than intrinsic to, the public sphere has side effects. For one thing, it contributes to the laughable distinction in our campaign finance laws between political action committees, which must disclose their donors, and affiliated nonprofit groups, which do not have to, as long as their attacks on candidates revolve around “issues,” not elections. But of course, the nonprofits’ issue ads are no less “political” than the PACs’ explicitly campaign-oriented ones.

But the biggest cost of our indiscriminate disparagement of all things “political” is its potential to further alienate Americans from a process they already have all too much reason to abandon. My time on the campaign trail this season has reminded me that there are few things more disheartening than meeting some of the countless people who have given up on politics — more often than not, people who have a major stake in the outcome. They spit the words out — “It’s all just politics” — with a disgusted wave, as if there were no connections between what they see happening in Washington and their lives, when there are in fact so many. And who can blame them, when they hear the word spoken with the same disgust by the practitioners in the field?

via From Solyndra to birth control, everything’s political. And that’s okay. – The Washington Post.

Santorum’s sermons

People are digging up Rick Santorum’s religious addresses from years back.  And though what he says is pretty conventional to most of us Christians, his sermons are being used to alarm the voting public.  This is about something he said in 2008 at Ave Maria University, a conservative Catholic college:

“Satan has his sights on the United States of America!” Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum has declared.

“Satan is attacking the great institutions of America, using those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that has so deeply rooted in the American tradition.”

The former senator from Pennsylvania warned in 2008 how politics and government are falling to Satan.

“This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country – the United States of America. If you were Satan, who would you attack in this day and age?”

“He attacks all of us and he attacks all of our institutions.”

Santorum made the provocative comments to students at Ave Maria University in Florida.

via DRUDGE: SANTORUM’S SATAN WARNING.

Wouldn’t any of us agree with that?  I’ve heard even liberal theologians with liberal politics talk like this.  And yet, in a political context, from someone running for president, it sounds whacky, if not crazy and dangerous.  But it isn’t!

Santorum doesn’t seem to have moral transgressions in his closet, so the opposition researchers are focusing on his religious beliefs.  (He doesn’t believe in birth control!  He believes Satan is attacking America!)  But whose religious beliefs couldn’t be made similarly scary?  (He wants to eat Jesus and drink His blood!)

Birth control as a winning issue for Democrats?

Religious people are for the most part appalled at the Obamacare mandate that employers must provide health insurance that will provide free abortion pills and contraceptives.  This is seen as a profound assault on religious liberty, forcing people by law to do what their religion forbids.

The left, though, is framing the issue as being all about birth control, ignoring the religious liberty angle altogether.  And Democrats are elated, convinced that they have found their winning issue that will make voters forget all about the economy in order to drive out of public life once and for all those crazy religious people who are against sex and who want to keep all women pregnant.

Sample the rhetoric and the cynical political strategy from this:  It’s Democrats who are putting focus on birth control – She the People: – The Washington Post.

Which side do you think will be more effective in framing the issues?


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