Reading a lot of conservative posts last night and this morning (unfortunately, just part of the gig here), I was mystified at the conviction of so many people that the mangled clips of the president’s “you didn’t build that” quote from Roanoke provided a gigantic, “aha” moment in the campaign that would drive Obama from the White House like a whipped Kenyan dog. The money quote that most of them are tossing around comes from the deep thinker Pat Sajak:
It’s as if President Obama climbed into a tank, put on his helmet, talked about how his foray into Cambodia was seared in his memory, looked at his watch, misspelled “potato” and pardoned Richard Nixon all in the same day.
Really? I mean, even if you buy the twisted, mendacious version of the Obama quote that the Romney campaign is retailing, are Americans really so protective of the tender sensibilities of business owners that they are shocked anyone would suggest that each and every one of them built their businesses strictly on their own? (Aside from from roads and bridges and inheritances, how’s about employees as a significant factor in business success?).
But then Dave Weigel explained it to me:
Call it a magic word gaffe—a statement that reveals not what a politician believes, but what you already feared, in your bone marrow, that a politician believes. Democrats still can’t understand why Obama’s speech is supposed to offend anyone. Republicans know that he’s a closet socialist, and that this sentiment only comes out when his energy is flagging….
A normal gaffe is usually discovered by the “mainstream” press, or by a rival campaign, in real time. Think about the Obama campaign hounding John McCain on his “the fundamentals of the economy are sound” as Lehman collapsed. Think about “the private sector is doing fine” becoming proof, for Romney, that Obama saw no problems in the private sector. The magic word gaffe takes more digging, because the media that mostly covers campaigns aren’t primed to hear what partisans hear.
Barack Obama’s presidency has been full of these moments. If you watched Glenn Beck during his Fox News years, you got endless exposure (more than 100 episodes of it, according to Lexis-Nexis) to an Oct. 30, 2008 quote from an Obama rally in Columbia, Mo. “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America,” said the candidate.
Bingo. The “magic word gaffe” is sort of the inverse of the “dog whistle” whereby pols use banal language that has a special meaning to ideologues (“constitutional conservative” being one notable example; “respect for life” being another). For our right-wing brothers and sisters, progressive (itself a magic word–maybe even a secret handshake–connoting Marxist convictions) discourse is full of these signifiers. “Equality.” “Fairness.” “Giving something back.” “Shared sacrifice.” Constant vigilance for these magic words is how conservatives have convinced themselves that the blandly pragmatic center-left politician Barack Obama pursuing leftover moderate Republican policies is a villain-figure straight out of Atlas Shrugged or (for the godly) Left Behind, hating success and righteousness.
The problem with this stuff, of course, is that the low-information swing voters who will decide the present election will require an awful lot of education to understand the magic word gaffes. They haven’t marinated their brains with Beckian revisionist history and don’t run around pasting “Breitbart Is Here!” posters on telephone poles. Many of them, in fact, probably don’t own businesses and don’t much think of their own bosses–much less the Mitt Romneys of the world–as heroic figures. So the nastiness aimed at Obama will inevitably get a lot coarser than what we hearing today. So what if a few facts get bent or invented along the way? America must be protected!