Trail To The Chief: 2016 Gaffe Edition

2016 Gaffe Edition

One of last week's most prominent stories of the 2016 presidential campaign featured former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush trying and trying and trying and trying to answer a simple question about hindsight and the invasion of Iraq that his brother ordered the last time a member of the Bush dynasty sat in the Oval Office. It took five attempts for Bush to arrive at the position adopted by the other GOP contenders: "Knowing what we know now, I would have not engaged. I would have not gone into Iraq.”

For this week at least, Bush’s torment defined his candidacy as passive, disaffected and out of touch. But he can take solace in one thing: Sometime soon, someone else on the campaign trail -- more like campaign trial -- is going to slip up and give the media some more grist for the “Did he really say that?” mill. It won’t always be fair, and it won’t always matter, but it is inevitable.

So this seems a good moment to talk about gaffes -- a term that we in the media have taken to using all too promiscuously in recent years. Gaffes come in all shapes and sizes. The famous “Kinsley gaffe” -- a wry distillation named after the term’s inventor, Michael Kinsley -- is an instance in which a pol accidentally tells the truth. But these days, politicians can commit all sorts of gaffes.

A tired candidate, delivering a stump speech for the 11th time in 36 hours, might misplace a pronoun or elide sentences together and enunciate something unintended. Or, they may say something in a joking mood that someone else takes way too seriously, or which lands badly. (Google “We begin bombing in five minutes.”)

Sometimes, a politician might get through an oration without a single goof. But in an age of well-funded opposition research, including armies of trackers and meme-generators, there are plenty of ways to read a candidate’s words unfairly. And there are plenty of reporters willing to pick up the phone when these campaign dark-artists call.

There are ongoing arguments, of course, on whether gaffes matter. A lot of research suggests that the public simply tunes out the gaffe melodrama. A lot of evidence suggests the media are the real clowns, every time a gaffe story breaks. But every so often, someone says something that has real, unexpected, substantive impact on their candidacy and the conversation. It falls to the media to discern the serious from the frivolous.

Fortunately, in this young election cycle, just about every candidate has said something that the chattering class has deemed to be dumb. We’ve taken on the task of listing the most memorable of these, ranking them here from the most serious, to the most frivolous. How did we do? Feel free to check our work and make your own argument! It will only make us better at giving you less hype, and more substance.

1 JEB BUSH ON IRAQIt wasn't just what he said, it was how many circumlocutions he went through to arrive we're still not sure where. We all mocked George W. when he called himself the decider -- now we know what an indecisive Bush looks like. Republican
2 HILLARY CLINTON: 'WE WERE DEAD BROKE'The oblivious chutzpah is a classic sort of gaffe: the one where a politician inadvertently confirms their critics’ narrative. The GOP plans to counter Clinton’s populist economic moves by tagging her as elitist, out-of-touch and entitled. When she insisted that she and Bill were “broke,” after his White House tenure ended, she sure sounded that way. And she knows it. Democrat
3 SCOTT WALKER ON LEGAL IMMIGRATIONNearly every GOP candidate is going to speak out against illegal immigration. But Walker took things a step too far when he suggested that something needs to be done about legal immigration. A fearmongering appeal (in an interview with Glenn Beck, natch!) to tea party xenophobes that misjudged where the GOP is now, and is headed. A classic Kinsley gaffe, in which he apparently said what he really thinks. Bad move. Republican
4 RAND PAUL ON BALTIMORE“I came through the train on Baltimore,” Rand Paul said to Laura Ingraham, “I’m glad it didn’t stop.” First, the train always stops in Baltimore. Second, this is not the right thing for a guy who is staking a large part of his candidacy on reforming the criminal justice system to say. Finally, isn’t Paul supposed to be self-styled “anti-elite?” If so, the image of him pearl-clutching his way through Baltimore while traveling to more esteemed locales is not a good look. Republican
5 BEN CARSON COMPARING OBAMACARE TO SLAVERYJust some general rules. Don't compare things to slavery. Don’t compare them to the Holocaust. Don’t compare them to 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, or Nazi Germany. If you want to stay on the safe side, leave the My Lai massacre, the Rwandan genocide, and the movie “Ishtar” alone, too. No matter how bad Obamacare is, it can be repealed legislatively. Would that slavery had been the same! Republican
6 CHRIS CHRISTIE KNOWS BETTER THAN CIVIL RIGHTS LEADERSIn an attempt to convey his preference for a New Jersey citizen referendum on marriage equality, Christie quipped, "I think people would have been happy to have a referendum on civil rights rather than fighting and dying in the streets in the South. ” Which, no. Think about how that referendum would have gone. Hey dude, you may know South Orange, but ditch the sweeping historical rhetoric about race and the South. We know it’s not the Jersey way, but don’t talk about something you don’t know anything about. Republican
7 RICK SANTORUM ON GAY WEDDINGSAsked if he’d attend the same-sex wedding of a dear friend, Santorum said, "I would love them and support them, but I would not participate in that ceremony." Has he not been to a wedding? The most important function of the ceremony is to allow those gathered to proclaim that they will "love and support" the couple. Clever Rick is, essentially, just cheating himself of some canapes and dancing. Republican
8 LINDSEY GRAHAM'S NONEXISTENT COUP GAFFEPour some Twitter on an innocent, tongue-in-cheek statement, and you have yourself a gaffe. In this case, Graham was victimized after he quipped, "I would literally use the military to keep them in if I had to. We’re not leaving town until we restore these defense cuts." It was meant to be a ha-ha, but all it took was one crank taking it way too seriously to turn it into a thing. Republican
9 BERNIE SANDERS' LOVE FOR SCANDINAVIABernie Sanders has fair points to make about the Scandinavian nations and their high level of voter participation and low levels of economic inequities. But when you’re running for president of the United States, you’re sort of required to hew to a comic book notion of “American exceptionalism.” Democrat
10 TED CRUZ: 'MARK HALPERIN IS A SERIOUS AND FAIR-MINDED JOURNALIST'Probably the worst of all, to be honest. Republican

Candidate Photos: Getty, Associated Press