The Art of the [Gaffe]

How every Obama line is becoming gaffe fodder, and why Democrats can't stop it.

MILWAUKEE—A new ad from the RNC scrambles together all of the terrifying stories in the news into one large panic-omelette. Everything from Ebola to ISIS to the threat of Gitmo prisoners being transferred into the United States is portrayed as a reason to vote out Democrats.

"November 4," warns a narrator, "Obama's policies are on the ballot." This is accompanied by a grainy clip of the president saying "these policies are on the ballot," during his October speech at Northwestern University.

Here in Milwaukee, where the president is making a campaign appearance for the Democrats' very competitive gubernatorial candidate, I've been looking up his recent less-than-soaring displays of rhetoric. By general agreement, the defining Obama stories of the month have been that the president was a turn-off for Maryland voters, who walked out mid-way through his rally for the party's statewide ticket, and that the president foolishly insisted that his policies were on the ballot.

"President Obama said... 'make no mistake, my policies are on the ballot,'" said CBS News's Major Garrett this month. "David Axelrod, a friend of this administration, a veteran of this building, said that was a mistake."

"When the president goes on national TV and says, 'you know what, this is about me. These are my policies, all my policies are on the ballot' ... it is a national election," said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman. 

You'd be forgiven if you thought the president said "my policies" were on the ballot. He didn't quite. The Northwestern speech, which preceded the wave of campaign appearances, was intended to be a policy address to kick off and reframe the election.

"This idea that somehow any of these policies—like the minimum wage or fair pay or clean energy—are somehow bad for business is simply belied by the facts," said the president. "I am not on the ballot this fall... but make no mistake:  These policies are on the ballot—every single one of them." 

For spot news reporters, the story—not very interesting, honestly—was that Obama had addressed "the nation's slow but steady economic recovery." Since then, the "policies" quote has transmogrified into an egotistical Obama admission that every vote for a Democrat is a vote for everything he, Obama, has done. "Every single one of them" has stopped being about the subjects that preceded the line, and become about literally every Obama policy. Even a CBS News story about the popularity of various Democratic economic policies—ballot measures on the minimum wage, for example, are winning in most states—fixed the Obama quote to fit the storyline, turning "these policies" into "[my] policies."

Were Democrats in tight races this close to avoiding the president until he mentioned that his party was generally more supportive of his neoliberal policies? That's hard to imagine, given how many Republican ads were Siamese-twinning grainy images of Democrats with grainy images of the president. But Republicans said that Obama had nationalized the races; therefore, the quote became Obama's nationalization of the races. 

The White House would save some time if, instead of writing entire speeches around attackable lines, it would cut 30-second gaffes every week and allow campaigns to play with them.

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