Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Which gaffes truly harm a candidate?

Jonathan Tobin analyzes
what constitutes a gaffe that truly harms a politician. he establishes a rule that makes sense to me: if a politician makes a mistake that most American people think that they may well have also made, they'll forgive the politician. Thus, the difference between Michele Bachmann saying that John Wayne was from Waterloo wouldn't bother most people. Her saying that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place in New Hampshire is much more problematic.
Maybe, but I doubt it. Clunkers that help kill candidacies and blight careers are generally mistakes ordinary persons think are errors they would not make. The most famous and most damaging political gaffe may have been Gerald Ford’s astonishing statement during the 1976 presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in which he “liberated” Poland from Soviet rule. That was bad not only because it was a stupid thing to say, but because most Americans knew that Poland was a Soviet satellite and thus understood Ford had something dumb without having smarty-pants journalists tell them that it was. Similarly, Dan Quayle never lived down his misspelling of “potato,” because most of us knew the correct spelling or at least pretended we did.

On a less earth-shaking level, Michele Bachmann’s statement earlier this year in which she placed the Revolutionary War battle of Concord in Concord, New Hampshire, rather than its correct location in Massachusetts was a genuine gaffe. Americans with even a dim memory of their school lessons know about Lexington and Concord.

But however embarrassing Bachmann’s invocation of the Wayne from the wrong town in Iowa may be, this is not the same kind of mistake. Most Americans, even many of those who still love the Duke’s movies, probably couldn’t have told you which state he was born in, let alone which Iowa hamlet has the proper claim to his legacy.
The extent to which the piling up of such errors contribute to forming an image of the politician as a dope is the real harm. I'm not sure what the Tobin rule would do with Obama saying that he had campaigned in 57 states. I'd add in the corollary that the gaffe has to fit the template that the people have come to accept about the politician. People didn't think that Obama was so stupid that he didn't know how many states there are.

Joe Biden can talk about a three-letter word, J-O-B-S, and that fits the template as Biden being someone whose mouth switches into gear before his brain. Republicans think it might also fit the template of Biden as a phony ignoramus, but that is not the general view that the American people had of him. But if that clip, along with the Obama 57-state clip were played and referenced as many times as the Dan Quayle "potatoe" mistake, perhaps the template of the smart Democratic politician contrasted with the dopey Republican politicians would begin to change. The media love the template of Republicans as idiots and have been using it against Reagan, both Bushes, Palin, and now Bachmann.

This is a weakness that Republicans should know that they will confront. They should be prepared and take extra care not to feed the template.