Politicians make mistakes all the time. Only a few of them, however, are deemed “gaffes” and even fewer get replayed over and over in the press and online. Paul Waldman argues that some gaffes stick more than others because reporters’ coverage actually just reinforces conclusions that have already been drawn about the politician. He talked to Brooke about how these so-called gaffes don’t really tell us anything new, but rather justify what we’ve been thinking all along.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
And I'm Brooke Gladstone. And here's Michele Bachmann.
And it started in Iowa! You’ve done it, Iowa.
[BACHMANN REMARKS/UP AND UNDER]
With last week's Iowa straw poll, an event of no historical significance, the presidential campaign of 2012 is well underway. The straw poll drew flocks of reporters, mostly because, like Everest, it was there. Pity the poor campaign reporter dogging the steps of scripted politicians, desperate for that rare unscripted moment, that moment known as the gaffe. Think John McCain not knowing how many houses he owned.
Some gaffes get repeated over and over again in the press and the blogosphere - they stick to candidates like tar, while others leave no trace. Why?
The American Prospect’s Paul Waldman has a theory. He says reporters cover the gaffes that reinforce the conclusions they've already made about a candidate.
Candidates end up getting defined by their most prominent character flaw, and the gaffe is one of the primary ways that reporters communicate that to us, essentially by saying, see, this thing that I've been thinking about this guy all the time, it's true, and here's the evidence.
Basically you're saying reporters are on Freudian slip patrol.
To a great extent they are. And now we have this entire apparatus to encourage them in that. So every candidate is being followed around by people who are hired by their opponent’s campaigns or by the other party, with cameras, whose job essentially is to try to find that gaffe, to be there when it happens.
Can we quickly run through some of the current contenders and their gaffes, beginning with the winner of the Iowa straw poll, Michele Bachmann? Here, she's talking about channeling the spirit of a guy from her home town:
Well, what I want them to know is just like John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa, that’s the kind of spirit that I have too.
PAUL WALDMAN: The person who was from Waterloo wasn't John Wayne, but John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer. Now, what's interesting about this is that's the kind of mistake we all make at some point. You know, we hear something, we repeat it. We don't remember it quite the right way.
But because it's Bachmann, and people tend to think of her as kind of a lightweight, then, therefore, that becomes evidence that she really is not - not all that bright. And, of course, the fact that it's kind of amusing helps that too.
Let's listen to the gaffe of a candidate who is generally regarded as extremely bright:
And over the last 15 months we've traveled to every corner of the United States. I've now been in fifty - seven states - I think one left to go.
PAUL WALDMAN: What he meant there was that he had competed in 57 contests, including in some territories like Guam and Puerto Rico that are not states. Conservatives actually have tried to get reporters to repeat that 57 states comment, but nobody really believes that Barack Obama doesn't know how many states there are, and so it doesn't stick.
We've been talking about factual mistakes, absolute gaffes. But in your article for The Washington Post you make reference to a lot of other remarks that candidates have made, which, to me, don't seem like gaffes. For instance, Republican Mitt Romney called corporations “people.” You call that a gaffe. I call that simply a comment that reveals his view.
We have to make sure that the promises we make in Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are promises we can keep. And there are various ways of doing that. One is we can raise taxes on people. That's not the way –
[PEOPLE IN CROWD SHOUTING]
PERSON IN CROWD:
PERSON IN CROWD: Corporate –
MITT ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend.
[SHOUTS FROM CROWD CONTINUE]
We can raise taxes on - of course, they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.
Where do you think it goes?
PERSON IN CROWD:
In your pocket!
PAUL WALDMAN: This is the kind of gaffe where when you understand it in context, if he had a chance to explain it, you might disagree with it but it would be something reasonable. What Romney was trying to say is that if you raise taxes on corporations, ultimately that will come out the pockets of shareholders or other sorts of human beings. When you take it out of context, it enables people who were opposed him to say, ah-ha, look, this has stripped away the veneer.
See, there’s an assumption that all of campaigning is theater. And what the gaffe is supposed to do is to strip away that veneer and show us the real person.
And that's why they’ll get repeated over and over, especially by partisans on the other side to say that all those other things that he said, that was just him trying to fool us. When he kind of slipped, that's when the mask came off and he showed us who he really is.
Well, let me apply this idea to Minnesota Republican Tim Pawlenty who ended his campaign after the straw poll. On FOX News Sunday he used the word “Obamneycare” to describe Mitt Romney's health program in Massachusetts. It was the intentional coining of a word for political purposes. Later he was backed into a corner because he didn't want to invoke the word again.
Your rival is standing right there.
If it was Obamneycare on FOX News Sunday, why is it not Obamneycare standing here with the Governor right there?
President Obama is, is the person who I quoted in saying he looked to Massachusetts for designing his program. He’s the one who said it’s a blueprint and that he merged the two programs. And so, using the term “Obamneycare” was a reflection of the President's comments that he designed to ObamaCare on the Massachusetts health care plan.
PAUL WALDMAN: His decision not to have that argument with Mitt Romney on that stage, does that reveal what would actually be a weakness as the president?
Two candidates could make the exact same statement and reporters would make an entirely different set of conclusions about what was behind it, based on the character flaw that they had already identified as that person's most important flaw.
Ron Paul, he is so widely ignored, despite his second place finish in the straw poll, that even his gaffes, such as they are, are never noted.
PAUL WALDMAN: You can make an argument that he's not too different from someone like, say, Michele Bachmann. I mean, he’s someone who has a small but fervent group of supporters. He's a member of the House who has never passed any kind of important legislation, just as she hasn't.
He would probably say, if you put me on the cover of Newsweek and you put me on Meet the Press and you did profiles of me on the front page of The New York Times, then I'd be getting more support too. And he'd probably be right about that.
But reporters already hold him in such contempt that nothing that he says will be particularly surprising to them and make them want to talk about it.
Paul, thank you so much.
PAUL WALDMAN: My pleasure.
Paul Waldman is a contributing editor at The American Prospect.