The False Equivalency of “Gaffes”

Most political junkies get a big kick out of candidate “gaffes”–so long as they are made by candidates they don’t like–and most of us are capable of distinguishing between an inadvertent slip of the tongue and a “Kinsley gaffe” wherein a candidate discloses something about his or her beliefs that is credible and very unpopular.

But putting all that aside, everyone with a brain can distinguish between any kind of “gaffe” and simply an utterance that opponents can turn into what appears to be a “gaffe” via heavy-handed editing, the removal of context or simply loud lies about it. The exploitation of the “you didn’t build that” remark by Obama involves all three of these opposition techniques, elevated by the repeated claim that this remark more than anything else reveals the president’s true essence, no matter how often he has contradicted the imputed meaning.

We are reaching a point in the presidential campaign, however, where some pundits are getting tired of trying to make such distinctions, and are simply denouncing any use of a candidate’s words by his opponents. Indeed, the normally quite insightful Sam Stein of HuffPost is suggesting that coverage of “gaffes” is killing the spontaneity and authenticity of all candidates:

Whether at home or abroad, presidential candidates’ so-called gaffes — and the media’s preoccupation with each inartfully phrased or impolitic remark — have defined the 2012 election. Gaffes get tweeted, blogged, and reported. Cable pundits declare them game-changers. And rival campaigns amplify them through any means possible. When that’s done, the story becomes whether the campaign gaffed in cleaning up its gaffe.

Reporters complain that Romney’s too robotic and Obama’s too detached. But given that media’s extensive coverage of gaffes so far, including at The Huffington Post, the chances of unscripted moments or off-the-cuff question-and-answer sessions seem likely to grow more remote from now until November. Reporters, in short, may be facilitating the very reality they detest.

That may well be true. But like every “even-handed” effort to generalize about candidates and campaigns and their treatment by the media, there’s a danger involved in throwing up one’s hands and refusing to make distinctions. Perhaps refusing to write about “gaffes” would reduce the temptation of campaigns to exploit, exaggerate, or even invent them, but it would also eliminate any effort to call out blatant lies and distortions as distinctive and deplorable events. And who, BTW, is going to referee coverage of “gaffes”? Fox News is going to use whatever ammunition it has been given by the Romney campaign and its supporters. More honest observers can try to tell the truth–difficult as it is sometimes–or just let the lies and spin take over. Before you know it, we could reach a juncture where “liberal media” are afraid to report a startling admission by Mitt Romney about the contents of the Ryan Budget–because no candidate in his right mind would do that! Better to hash it all out in the context of what the two candidates actually seem to stand for.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.