Gaffe-Checking the Debates

Illustration by Bryan Walker Close

Illustration by Bryan Walker

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Illustration by Bryan Walker

A gaffe, as the fellow once said, is when a politician tells the truth. We might add: Or unintentionally reveals his or her true thinking.

We journalists love gaffes. They are compact little newslets that save us from having to write about sprawling and difficult issues like the economy. With the first presidential debate this week, we will enter the last chapter of a campaign that has been dominated by gaffes.

It’s not that the politicians are making more impolitic remarks. It’s that journalists have become more dependent on gaffes to supply drama and forward motion to their reporting of the campaign. Gaffes are perfect fodder for the Internet, with its voracious need for new content and controversy.

Mitt Romney’s little boat is the one that has been tossed and turned most ruthlessly by the gods of gaffery. He became the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination when Texas Governor Rick Perry said he wanted to abolish three federal departments but could name only two of them. It seemed obvious that Perry really didn’t give a hoot about abolishing these departments. He had just been spoon-fed by his hired-gun political strategists. Also, it seemed that he might not be all that bright.

Neither of these matters was a surprise. But -- paradoxically -- a gaffe is more likely to be damaging to a candidate if it confirms a previous narrative or prejudice than if it tells you anything new. This is what they mean by “pack journalism.” The late Senator Eugene McCarthy used to compare it to a flock of birds sitting on a wire. None will move. Then one does, and they all follow to the next wire. Then the process repeats.

Talkin’ Trash

If someone else’s gaffe got Romney the nomination, a gaffe of his own might cost him the election. The line on Romney was that he is a rich guy with no understanding of or sympathy for the middle class. So that video of Romney talkin’ trash with fellow rich Republicans at a fundraiser last spring, released by Mother Jones last month, was devastating.

A proper gaffe is an insult to some valuable constituency, which then indulges in umbrage: being, or pretending to be, hurt, angry or -- I love this one for its especially obvious phoniness -- “saddened” by some politician’s remark. Why would anyone insult an important constituency?

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Good question. In general, no one would intentionally do so. Romney was captured on video without his knowledge. Perry, well, let’s just say that he went beyond expressing a disqualifying truth to actually demonstrating it. In most cases, the insult is either bogus or inadvertent.

A good test of whether you’re in the presence of a genuine gaffe is whether the speaker would take it back if he or she could. If they wish they’d never said it, it’s a gaffe. This raises the question: Why should we pay so much attention to things people say by accident? Why should more credence be given to words someone wishes she’d never uttered than to the many things she has no desire to retract?

The theory is that the gaffe is actually the voice of the politician’s subconscious. But gaffes have become so ludicrously central to American politics that demand outstrips supply. So standards are low. Almost any statement that can be twisted into the shape of a gaffe will be. Any person or group who arguably might be offended is offended. To borrow from Rahm Emanuel, you never want a gaffe to go to waste.

At the same time, it’s much harder today than it was just a few years ago for politicians to tell outright lies. Media organizations are already “fact-checking” the debate, even though it hasn’t started yet, and they will have SWAT teams ready to expose Romney or President Barack Obama should either of them dare to say 27 percent when the correct figure is 31 percent.

Gaffe-Checking

Where is the similar scrutiny of gaffes and alleged gaffes? We need official answers to questions like: When has a politician committed a genuine gaffe and when is the accusation just demagoguery from the other side? If it’s a real gaffe, how serious is it? Should the gaffing pol just shrug it off? Apologize and move on? Slit her wrists? It depends on the nature of the gaffe.

Some rulings will be easy. The prize for most spectacular gaffe of 2012, so far, clearly goes to Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Missouri, for his animadversions on women and rape. In the end he may go down and take Romney with him. Akin’s gaffe was too clinical and too bizarre to label as a slip of the tongue, and too nutty to be called a lie. It’s a kind of jaw-dropping ignorance that is sui generis and unclassifiable.

Much more common is the stupid small lie that is also a gaffe because you inevitably get caught. Or the statement that is technically true but patently ridiculous.

These kinds of gaffes are a Romney specialty. He has claimed to have been “a hunter pretty much all my life,” and that “there were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.” Occasionally Romney has said things that are true, and not ridiculous, for which he has been ridiculed unfairly. I would put his heart-felt declaration that “corporations are people, my friend” in that category. Romney’s point was that corporate profits don’t disappear forever into the corporate maw but end up going to real people. Rich people, perhaps, but nevertheless real. Fair enough. Not a gaffe.

Truth is not always a defense, however. If you say something perfectly true -- maybe even true and important or courageous -- that the opposing side takes up and willfully mischaracterizes, that’s still a gaffe if you regret having said it. Surely Obama regrets having said, “You didn’t build that,” which the Republicans then made so much of at their convention. All Obama meant was that every business depends to some extent on the government. To listen to Republicans, you would think he had endorsed the Communist manifesto. Nevertheless, it was a mistake to have said it. In short, a gaffe.

It’s too bad. Neither of the two candidates is a terribly spontaneous guy. With the risk that one or two ill-chosen words can plunge you into Gaffe Hell, and no comparable benefit that can be so easily achieved, this year’s presidential debates are likely to be more rehearsed and cautious than ever. In Gaffeland, the less said the better.

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Today’s highlights: the editors on how to avert the fiscal cliff and on New York’s lawsuit against JPMorgan Chase & Co.; Margaret Carlson on the election as a referendum on Mitt Romney; Clive Crook on finding an unextreme path for Europe; Peter Orszag on the widening U.S. longevity gap; Meghan L. O’Sullivan on the silver lining in the Muslim anti-American riots; Thomas de Waal on Georgia’s democratic counterrevolution.

To contact the writer of this article: Michael Kinsley at mkinsley@bloomberg.net or @michaelkinsley on Twitter.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.

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