POLITICS

The Gaffe Is Dead! Long Live The Gaffe!

The media's obsession with gaffes is over, thanks to Donald Trump.
Trump, the "ungaffable" candidate.
Trump, the "ungaffable" candidate.

On July 31, 2012, in a far-off land called Poland, someone posed what was, at the time, a defining question in American politics: “What about your gaffes?”

That inquiry, hurled at then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney by Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker during the former Massachusetts governor's trip abroad, contained multitudes. Salon’s Alex Pareene suggested that the question should be “translated into Latin and made America’s new motto,” as it was “a perfect beautiful little 2012 campaign zen koan that should be buried in a time capsule and never dug up.”

“Quid gaffes tua?” would, indeed look good on the $20 bill. But maybe it would serve best as an epitaph for an era that could very well be over. Because, while the recent flap over Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders’ interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News certainly has a retro feel to it -- harkening back to a campaign season in which members of the political media were quick to allege error and slow to undertake even the briefest amount of study and self-reflection necessary to avoid unnecessary inflammations -- it seems like the Age Of Gaffes is over, sent to its dirt nap by former reality-TV star and Arkham Asylum escapee Donald Trump.

This is actually not a good thing. But this is where we are: lost in one man’s labyrinth of nonsense, and looking back at a terrible bygone era with unlikely fondness.

The Origin Of Gaffes

It may be hard to remember now, but when the whole notion of a “gaffe” was first introduced into the political lexicon, it arrived as a high-minded concept, intended to describe politicians' not-infrequent tendency to damage themselves when they accidentally told the truth about something.

This idea that “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth” was famously put forth by founding Slate editor Michael Kinsley, whose name has since become associated with the concept. Kinsley had workshopped this truism as early as 1984, but it really took off after he described it in a 2007 article in Time magazine:

It used to be, there was truth and there was falsehood. Now, there is spin and there are gaffes. Spin is often thought to be synonymous with falsehood or lying, but more accurately it is indifference to the truth. A politician engaged in spin is saying what he or she wishes were true, and sometimes, by coincidence, it is. Meanwhile a gaffe, it's been said, is when a politician tells the truth — or, more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down.

One of the pseudo-events that animated Kinsley’s writing at the time was a statement made to the New York Observer by then-Sen. Joe Biden, who commenced his campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination by saying of then-Sen. Barack Obama: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy ... I mean, that's a storybook, man."

I’m not going to lead you through an unpacking of everything that went wrong there. Suffice it to say it was an inauspicious beginning to what eventually became a failed campaign (but which also led to a really deep friendship, so, silver linings).

Biden -- and it would just have to be Biden, wouldn’t it? -- primed the pump for eight years of news coverage to come, during which the concept of “news cycle” and “gaffe cycle” would be almost interchangeable. For the better part of a decade, members of the media -- primarily driven by cable news’ insatiable need to shoehorn anything that might serve as content onto its airwaves and the Internet’s equally insatiable need to comment on it -- went in search of low-hanging fruit to swing their sticks at, eventually finding it everywhere they looked.

To be sure, politicians inevitably helped this cause, because they are, by and large, idiots.

A Gaffe Taxonomy

But soon enough, the concept of what came to be known as a “gaffe” migrated far, far away from Kinsley’s original observation about politicians' inadvertent truth-telling to include any statement from any politician that could be weaponized to extract a penny’s worth of pain, like a shillelagh of unintended consequences.

And what a heydey it was, spawning a considerable number of gaffe varietals:

The Blunt Force Kinsley Gaffe: A gaffe that, while inadvertently revealing the truth about something a politician believes, really just reveals that said politician is a titanic idiot.

Example: former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s famous claim that women, in cases of “legitimate rape,” possessed the physiological means to prevent a pregnancy.

The Angry Concurrence Gaffe: This is a gaffe that angers people despite the fact that everyone sees eye-to-eye on the matter.

Example: Obama’s famous observation about Americans left behind in the Clinton/Bush years, made at a San Francisco fundraiser:

You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

This statement, which Obama offered in an effort to literally teach a bunch of West Coast elites to have some forbearance toward poorer Americans, angered many people who agreed wholeheartedly that they were, in fact, bitter about being brushed aside by elites, and for whom guns and religion were a succor for that bitterness. (Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has a canned line in which she angrily agrees with Obama in this regard.)

The "With Friends Like These" Gaffe: This is a gaffe that arises because your nominal ally makes sure the world finds out about it.

Example: In the run-up to the 2014 off-year election, former Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), gunning for retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s seat, wanted to make the case that he’d be a better man to have on the Senate Judiciary Committee than Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.

He came up with this: “If you help me win this race, you may have ... someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years in a visible and public way on the Senate Judiciary [Committee] ... or you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary.”

Problem: Iowa is home to tons of farmers! But all of this might have been avoided if a Braley ally hadn’t thought this was a really great zinger and posted it on the Internet.

The "The Person Who Made This Gaffe Isn’t Even Associated With A Candidate Or A Campaign, But By God, Some Candidate Or Campaign Is Going To Have To Answer For It Anyway" Gaffe: Google “Hilary Rosen-gate” if you feel like your life is too long.

Joe Biden's gaffe about Barack Obama in 2008 didn't appear to get in the way of their friendship.
Joe Biden's gaffe about Barack Obama in 2008 didn't appear to get in the way of their friendship.

The "Not Actually A Gaffe" Gaffe: Self-explanatory: somehow, a thing that is not a gaffe is treated by the media as a terrible, embarrassing mistake.

Example: During a May 2012 appearance on “Meet The Press,” Biden explained that he was “absolutely comfortable” with marriage equality. Somehow, this was a gaffe despite the fact that there was no actual problem with the vice president's position. Indeed, it would have been very strange if he’d somehow spun and B.S.-ed his way through that question to deliver a non-answer.

Ostensibly, the error here was that Biden was announcing his public support for gay marriage before Obama was ready to do so himself. If anything, this just exposed how silly the whole “Obama is continually evolving on the issue” line really was. In the end, the Obama administration came out in support of marriage equality as well.

But let’s never forget that brief, stupid time when the media thought that Biden's revelation that he was siding with the majority of Americans on an issue was a fantastically mistaken thing for him to do.

The "No One Can Explain Why This Was Ever A Gaffe" Gaffe: This is a gaffe that wouldn’t even be considered a gaffe if anyone actually stopped to interrogate the premise of the statement itself. Apply logic for thirty seconds, and it goes away. But if you don’t apply logic, and instead pretend that it’s a really big deal, you can lead a day of cable news segments on a non-story.

Example: On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama criticized the policies of Republican hopeful John McCain as newly-shined bad ideas to which the country should not return. To underscore this, he used an idiom commonly deployed to convey this concept: “You can put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.”

Somehow, he got in trouble for this. The basic rationale for calling this “gaffe” -- insofar as the word “rationale” can be tortured into accommodation -- was that McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, had famously used a campaign zinger that included the word “lipstick,” and so lipstick was thus conceptually branded to Palin’s person, making any derogatory statement including the word “lipstick” a de facto sexist attack on her. Honestly, everyone just lost their damn minds on this one. Even political analyst Mark Halperin criticized the people who turned this into a gaffe.

The Opposition Research Gaffe: Any gaffe that would have gone wholly unremarked upon, were it not for the fact that political campaigns employ teams of desperate people tasked with the job of creating gaffes out of whole cloth.

Example: Mitt Romney’s famous “I like to fire people” remark. As Politifact noted, Romney was discussing how important it is for health care customers to be able to shop around for different providers when a provider proved to be unsatisfactory. His inartful “I like to fire people who provide services to me” was, out of context, manna for the Obama campaign, waist-deep in a yearlong campaign to define Romney as an unfeeling plutocrat.

The Bad Faith Gaffe: The evolution of gaffe coverage inevitably led here, to the “bad faith” gaffe. This is when the media willfully ignores context and circumstance to transform what would ordinarily be read by a fair-minded observer as a situation in which a politician bungled a stump speech or clumsily riffed on a standard position into something that is supposedly revelatory.

Examples: Obama’s “You didn’t build that,” in which the president attempted to borrow a well-known argument from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) only to demonstrate that she was better at delivering her own lines. Another classic was Mitt Romney’s “Our productivity equals our income” gaffe, in which Romney’s discussion of national productivity and the competition between nations was treated as if he’d said that individually impoverished people were to blame for their own circumstances.

This is, if anything, a woefully incomplete taxonomy of gaffes. But the point is this: Instead of thinking of a gaffe as a true thought accidentally clarified, the term was redefined. In many instances, the concept ended up being applied to any garden-variety campaign trail cock-up. In many more, it was applied to anything a politician said or did that could be spun into a cock-up.

That’s an even larger deviation from Kinsley’s original idea. Instead of a gaffe occurring “when the spin broke down,” many in this new breed of gaffes came about when the spin was successful.

The Consequences of Gaffe-Journalism

And as long as common sense, curiosity about context and good faith were slow in coming, gaffes could become a bedevilment to both politicians and, more importantly, news consumers.

Some of the utterances now known as “gaffes” were actually important in shaping the political landscape. Democrats dined out on Akin’s nonsense for the better part of an election season, catching Republicans across the nation in the net woven by his idiocy.

And many hold the granddaddy gaffe of them all, Mitt Romney’s famous “47 percent” remark, as a (if not the) game-changing moment in the 2012 presidential election cycle.

Nevertheless, there came a point when the media’s ability to see gaffes everywhere and assist in creating more of them started to look ridiculous.

Actual voters, to their enormous credit, found the wherewithal to largely tune out the noise, correctly identifying gaffe-journalism as a goofy game of patty-cake played by elite media insiders and their sources. As political scientist John Sides observed, people remained mostly ignorant of all the flaps and flubs that were constantly being foisted upon them, and in many instances, the gaffes that members of the media were busy promoting simply failed to affect voter opinion in any way.

Voters respond to "big moments" in the 2012 presidential campaign with a resounding "Eh."
Voters respond to "big moments" in the 2012 presidential campaign with a resounding "Eh."

But the unending gaffe cycle did affect the way politicians interacted with the media. As The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone and Sam Stein reported in August 2012, one of the immediate effects was that campaigns got a lot more scripted and candidates sought ways to bypass the traditional gatekeepers. As a result, the more free-wheeling, open-ended political conversations that were the staple of candidates like McCain fell by the wayside.

The constancy of gaffes forced a reaction from political fixers as well. The organizing principle behind Karl Rove’s “Conservative Victory Project” was to organize political donors behind candidates who demonstrated enough message discipline to avoid fiascos like Akin’s “legitimate rape” commentary. (Of course, rather than simply reward candidates who knew better than to enunciate their dumb beliefs, it might have been better to recruit candidates who didn’t have dumb beliefs in the first place.)

Flash-forward to today, and the overall interest in gaffes has substantially faded. Yes, politicians are still gaffing it up out there, and the media is covering it. But the love is gone. People have moved on. 

People just don't love gaffes like they used to.
People just don't love gaffes like they used to.

The Post-Gaffe Era

It would be really nice if we could credit the decline of the gaffe to all the lessons learned about how useless and pedantic most of the body of gaffe-journalism really was. But it’s pretty clear that what’s killed gaffe-journalism is Trump, whose hallucinatory presence and constant stream of cuckoo-bananas balderdash have essentially made the gaffe entirely irrelevant.

What gaffes were really about was the inability of politicians to be perfect at all times, and the media’s ability to monetize these momentary lapses. When you consider the fact that every campaign has a rival it would eagerly prefer to see wounded, this was pretty good business for a while.

But Trump neatly inverts this entire idea. He doesn’t have momentary lapses. He is a constant, walking lapse of good sense, taste and judgment. He almost entirely eschews the idea of a scripted campaign. He rarely spins, because what’s to spin? If he’s facing criticism for something he says, he’ll either say it again, say something else, or say that he never said what he actually said in the first place.

This is, at best, spinning at a Pre-K level -- the kid caught among the remains of a broken cookie jar, insisting he’s not to blame. Trump places no value in logic or consistency. He creates a welter of bullshit and hurls it at the world.

Really, what do gaffes even matter in a media landscape perpetually enshrouded in Trump’s skein of gibberish? All of the politicians that have, in previous election cycles, been waylaid by gaffes have got to be envious of Trump’s ability to drive right at the heart of infinite wrongness and remain a threat to win the nomination of a national political party. Sure, his recent primary loss in Wisconsin has slightly punctured his imperviousness, but he’s gotten much further than many of his nominal peers.

And he’s gotten there by saying things that would have easily capsized any other candidate and driven them from the race in shame. While so many of Trump’s positions are simply the standard GOP subtext given greater enunciation, doing things like excoriating McCain for being a prisoner of war, or making fun of people with disabilities, or inciting violence on the campaign trail would have been a death knell for any other Republican. In fact, it’s not insane to imagine that Trump and GOP rivals John Kasich and Ted Cruz could all issue the same bonkers statement simultaneously, and only the latter two men would pay a price for it.

Really, what do gaffes even matter in a media landscape perpetually enshrouded in Trump’s skein of gibberish?

If anything, Trump’s rivals have struggled because they’re just a pale imitation of the reality-television star’s extremism. Their ingrained caution from past lessons of gaffe-journalism has, at least with the GOP base, been their undoing.

In this environment, gaffes simply become irrelevant. The game has become one in which Trump madly dictates the tempo and the temperature of the race, and his competitors struggle to respond to it. The entire discourse begins and ends with an “ungaffable” candidate.

There is an additional level of irony to be found in this post-gaffe environment. Whenever Trump pitches something crazy, the media works very hard to plumb the depths of his imagination to explore whether or not there’s anything plausible to be had. So when he offers up a plan to ban Muslims from entering the country, the machinery of media expertise gins up and examines the proposal's feasibility. When he says that he can pay down a $19 trillion national debt in eight years, good journalists whip out their calculators. “For a moment, let’s take Donald Trump’s economic promises seriously,” write The Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley and Jeff Guo.

The good news, of course, is that good reporters usually see Trump’s bullshit for what it is and say so wholeheartedly. But by then, it’s too late. They’ve raised Trump’s insanity to a level where it becomes worthy of debate. They normalize his ideas. They even do all of the critical thinking work on Trump’s behalf, and provide him with a map to plausibility, should he want one.

In a way, we’ve all forgotten that Trump is, first and foremost, a birther -- the sort of vexatious, conspiracy-minded wildling that the professional press dismisses out of hand because doing otherwise would cause a degeneration of the discourse.

The irony here, in terms of gaffes, is that back during the gaffe-addled election cycles of yesteryear, the issue was the media’s propensity to act in bad faith and cause problems for candidates. Trump, for whatever reason, has largely elicited nothing but a good-faith effort from reporters, who bend over backwards trying to explain how the guy came up with the strange ideas he promulgates on the stump. During the gaffe cycle’s sillier season, such efforts forced politicians to be far more dextrous and much more fearful of earning some undeserved dose of accountability. Similar attempts to counter Trump have resulted in nothing of the sort.

This is a sad, strange time for anyone who ridiculed the excesses of the media’s gaffe obsession. Something bad has given way to something worse. This election season has a long run ahead of it, but at the moment, one can’t avoid thinking it was preferable when members of the media harmed many candidates with their worst work -- now, they enable a monster with their best.

~~~~~

Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

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