Voluntary, intentional statements vs. misstatements

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s epic brain-freeze during a Republican primary debate is often referred to as a “gaffe.”

That’s a strange word that gets used strangely — it gets applied to simple misstatements and unintentional double-negatives, to brain-freezes like Perry’s, and to slightly off attempts to praise local culture — such as when a candidate in Philly orders a cheesesteak with provolone, like most natives do, instead of with Cheeze Wiz, like most non-native members of the media imagine most natives do.

None of those examples above are of any real consequence. Michele Bachmann’s inversion of the birthplaces of John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy wasn’t the kind of misstep that told us anything substantial about her merits as a candidate. Dozens of politicians who were well-informed about both countries have inverted the names of Iraq and Iran because that’s easy to do. And in every campaign, some sleep-deprived candidate will, like many an exhausted touring musician, greet a crowd of supporters by naming the wrong city. So what?

But such trivial incidents get lumped together into the category of “gaffe” along with other statements of a wholly different kind. Sometimes a candidate will speak candidly, voluntarily and intentionally saying something they fully understood and fully meant to say, and if that statement later comes back to haunt them it also gets categorized as a “gaffe.”

It’s not. A gaffe is a mistake. Such intentional and deliberate statements weren’t said by mistake. It may have been a mistake to say them out loud in public. It may have been a mistake to ever even think such things. But they weren’t said by mistake.

This is part of what’s broken in the way our political contests are conducted and covered. Think again of Rick Perry’s big “oops.” His temporary (anguishingly long, but only temporary) inability to remember the third Cabinet-level government agency he would eliminate was the focus of attention for days afterward and wound up seriously, maybe even fatally, damaging his candidacy. If he had remembered the names of all three agencies, that debate and the rest of his campaign would have gone very differently.

And that’s upside-down and backwards, because the thing that Rick Perry stumbled and bumbled trying to remember was that he wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy. Just months after the Fukushima disaster, Rick Perry voluntarily and deliberately chose to tell the American people that he wanted to get rid of the government’s role in nuclear safety, and yet the radically dangerous substance of what he tried to say was less damaging to his campaign then the fact that he stumbled in trying to say it.

In New Hampshire this week, Newt Gingrich said this:

If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention to talk about why the African-American community should demand pay checks and not be satisfied with food stamps.

If he had misspoken, forgetting the name of the NAACP or perhaps saying something like “NCAA” instead, then he’d be in the middle of a media circus and his campaign would take a hit as he became the butt of jokes until the next politician garbled some words.

But he didn’t misspeak. He said what he meant and he meant what he said.

Gingrich is insisting that this comment was taken out of context. Elsewhere in that same speech, he said that, “There’s no neighborhood I  know of in America where if you went around and asked people would you your children have food stamps or pay checks, you wouldn’t have a majority saying they’d rather have paychecks.”

If that’s what he believes, then it’s not clear why he thinks the NAACP and “the African-American community” need him — Newt Gingrich — to explain to them “why” they should believe what they already believe, or what it is he thinks is unique and exceptional about black people that makes them — contradicting his other statement — “satisfied with food stamps.” He was invited to the Family Research Council’s convention, and he went, and yet he didn’t see any need while he was there to deliver a lecture “about why the white evangelical community should demand pay checks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” That’s a lecture he reserves for black people, and no matter what context he builds around that singling-out of “the African-American community” it won’t rescue him.

What’s amazing to me, as I said in the previous post, is that Gingrich’s primary opponents — Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Rick Perry — haven’t jumped on this opportunity.

This is a free kick, an open goal, a hanging curveball, a giant fish in a teeny tiny barrel.

Newt Gingrich is their opponent. They are competing against him for a finite number of votes in a zero-sum contest. And he has just voluntarily and deliberately said something stupid and hateful.

Here is what you do when your opponent voluntarily and deliberately says something stupid and hateful: You pounce on it and you pound on it. You padlock it around his neck with a heavy chain and make him beg for the key. You make him own it or you make him disown it and you don’t relent until he does one or the other.

This is how campaigns work. This is what candidates do. Yet Mitt Romney has not done this. Rick Santorum has not done this. Ron Paul has not done this. Rick Perry has not done this.

Why not?

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  • FangsFirst

    Hey, there probably WOULD be jobs for everyone.

    Man, staffing problems would be a thing of the past!

    So long as you didn’t mind an entire staff of people starving and constantly ill from living outsider under newspapers or blankets or whatever they could find.

    They couldn’t call out sick though. Since they wouldn’t have phones. But those are a luxury anyway, right?

  • Answer — They don’t really care about the issue; they just want us to stop talking about so we can get back to shoveling money into their accounts. If they really cared, they would at least take the time to understand the basic situation, but they clearly haven’t.

  • You know, this reminds me of the one time I was on a jury many years ago. 

    The case was against a young African American woman who had been busted by an undercover vice officer as a prostitute.  The lawyers on both prosecution and defense were fairly young, probably not long out of law school, and likely still building their careers.  The prosecution kept pressing that the letter of the law was what was important, the defense kept insisting that the charges were leveled because the young woman in question fit the profile of a prostitute and the DA’s office jumped to conclusions about her intentions that night. 

    The trial lasted two days.  The witness’ testimony we had to go on was sparse, and contradicted on a few little details.  It was a he-said / she-said scenario, so we in the jury had to determine which witnesses gave the most credible testimony.  However, both prosecution and defense teams did little to cross examine witnesses, did not press on them on the details that were inconsistant with other the other witnesses.  If they had asked a few more direct questions, we in the jury might have been able to better determine which situation was the most likely and thus do our civil duty as the defendant’s peers. 

    In our deliberations, we all expressed our upset at the fact that the defense and prosecution seemed to be ignoring the giant elephants in the witness’ testimony, with none of them willing to ask questions that might lead to answers that deviate from the respective narritives that they were trying to get us to believe.  They were not interested in justice, in seeing the law applied fairly and in accordance with its intended purpose, just in winning the case, regardless of what the truth was. 

    To this day, I regret not making a scene in the court room when we went back after our deliberations.  I would have been held in contempt of the court for what I felt like saying, but it would have been worth it, just to get on record that I felt that the lawyers present should have been immediately dismissed by their respective firms for dereliction of the duty that their legal system has entrusted to them. 

    What is happening here is something similar.  These candidates do not want to go the White House to fulfil a civil obligation that they feel drawn to execute.  They just care about “winning”, not “duty”.  They do not bring up this “gaffe” of Gingrich’s because doing so would prevent them using the same kind of tactics later, and might call some of their own previous statements into greater scrutiny. 

    It represents a certain moral cowardice. 

  • FangsFirst

    Heh. Yeah I never thought they CARED. I just think they sincerely believe it when they say “there are ways to get jobs” and stuff.
    I more thought maybe they’d consider the really, REALLY obvious problem with the entire sentiment and how it could be pointed out to them. It couldn’t be called false accusations of racism or anything else. It’s just…impossible. It’s not possible. And there’s no way to realistically or even fantastically insist that it is.

    But, hey. No one has ever brought it up to them, so I guess there’s no need for them to figure out how to defend it or think harder.

  • I just think they sincerely believe it when they say “there are ways to get jobs” and stuff.

    Yeah, but I don’t think they care enough to sincerely believe that. When Herman Cain suggests that the reason the unemployment rate is so high is because of laziness, it isn’t because he’s forgotten about the recession or is too stupid to connect an economic downturn with widespread joblessness. It’s the equivalent of a parent saying, “Because I said so” or a teenager saying “What-EVER!” It’s a brush-off, designed to cut off debate so they can move onto something more interesting to them.

    Of course, later on, when given an opportunity to bash President Obama over the unemployment rate, they’ll suddenly realize that there really aren’t enough new jobs being created to keep up with the population. They’ll suddenly understand how creating 200,000 McDonald’s jobs is not the solution to long-term structural unemployment, because those jobs don’t pay enough to support a family and return very little marginal value to the community. Some of them might even understand that there is something that the federal government can do to help fix this problem.

    But they’ll only know these things and remember these facts when it’s convenient for them. When they’re not interested in talking about these issues, they’ll default to the suggestion that there are billions of unfilled high-paying jobs and Americans are just too lazy to take them.

  • FangsFirst

    It’s the equivalent of a parent saying, “Because I said so” or a
    teenager saying “What-EVER!” It’s a brush-off, designed to cut off
    debate so they can move onto something more interesting to them.

    Ooh! that is such an excellent encapsulation! Thank you!
    Capturing the fact that the parent or teenager feels utterly right in making those shut off comments and doesn’t consider that there could be reasons for it to be different…perfect!

  • vsm

    Although it has to be interesting to notice the contrasts between the party of Treason and Tea versus Obama in terms of pure intellect, maturity, and competence.

    It is. I imagine it’s one of the reasons you need to be really, really far to the right in most European countries to not root for the Democrats.

    But really, I wouldn’t want to sit on my high horse lecturing Americans about how horrible their politics are, even if imagining oneself that much more refined and civilized than the colonials is quite attractive to us Europeans. Thankfully, the rise of right-wing populism, some of which is even uglier than tea partying*, should put a damper on it. I’m mostly amazed at the scale, really.

    *As a local example, a now-prominent politician of that stripe once publicly called a gay black man a “avttre snttbg” (rot13) without losing his party’s support. So yeah.