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A Voter’s Guide to Political Gaffes

Steve Russell
9/26/12

Michael Kinsley, writing in The New York Times, famously defined a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth—some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” I leave it to others whether Kinsley nailed it, but I’m here to suggest that all gaffes are not equal, or even equally interesting.

Some gaffes in our time would not have been so historically. Before the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle, candidates routinely told different audiences what they wanted to hear even if the statements were flatly contradictory. In our times, those contradictions quickly become gaffes that are circumstantial evidence of dishonesty, as Thoreau would say, “very strong—as when you find a trout in the milk.”

Let’s set aside panders, spins, and puffing—which is to say, normal politics.

A pander is when Gov. Romney chooses his speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to let out his belt a notch on his opposition to the DREAM Act by going along with kids brought here by their parents and serving in the US military not being deported. Never mind that active duty soldiers are never deported, it’s still a serviceable pander.

A spin would be when a Super PAC supporting President Obama used a statement by a man whose job and access to health insurance had been destroyed by Romney’s Bain Capital to suggest that Romney was responsible for his wife’s death from cancer. The suggestion is fair only in the sense that a butterfly’s wings may impact the weather, a mainstay of chaos theory that has yet to break into the realm of common sense.

Puffing would be, as stated by many conservative talking heads, “Obama is the worst President in US history.” The essence of puffing is that it’s entirely unsupported opinion, not likely to change minds.

Panders, spins, and puffing are all normal during silly season, and reasonable people can differ about when they cross a line and become lies. Nobody likes lies, so a politician crossing the line suffers. Unless he has enough money to keep repeating the lie, as in Gov. Romney’s claim that President Obama has removed the work requirement from the Clinton welfare reforms.

Enough of lies and borderline statements and back to the lowly gaffe, as a truth told out of place. Not all gaffes are equal.

First, there are gaffes that show the candidate to be out of touch. Under this heading, file President George H.W. Bush's astonishment at price scanners in supermarkets 10 years after they were common. It had been a while since that boy did his own shopping.

Also, Barack Obama's remark about "the price of arugula at Whole Foods." Working class voters, excepting Italians, do not know what arugula is, leaving aside who shops at Whole Foods.

Ditto Mitt Romney's remark to NASCAR fans that many of his friends own NASCAR teams. The people he was trying to mix among just wanted a good seat for the race, and the owner’s box was out of their price range.

Second, there are gaffes that are condescending. A prime illustration would be Obama, surreptitiously recorded speaking to a fundraising audience of liberals in the People’s Republic of San Francisco. After recounting 25 years of failures by the government to bring jobs back to the rust belt, he said “it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Stereotype much, Mr. President?

Third, and most deadly, there are gaffes that go beyond out of touch and beyond condescending and reveal an honestly held opinion that shows plain meanness. Gov. Romney was surreptitiously recorded speaking to a $50,000 a plate fundraiser in Boca Raton, where he opined: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what…who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it—that that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.... These are people who pay no income tax.... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

The people who don’t pay federal income tax are 46.4 percent, so the proper rounding would be down, but he’s close enough for government work. The problem is not truth; the problem is meanness—and that’s a whole other column.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at swrussel@indiana.edu.

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