Actually, I have no problem with the world we live in. Politicians are held to incredibly foolish standards, but the rules are for the most part spelled out, so basically that works out reasonably well. But it is sometimes worth pointing out the insanity of it.

What brings this on is this big campaign gaffe, in which Virginia Democratic Senate candidate Tim Kaine managed to mangle his talking points on taxes during a debate, somehow winding up supporting tax increases for those who don’t currently pay income taxes. Who are, as we’ve been hearing all week, in many cases elderly, disabled, or very poor (although there’s also a pretty large group who are just middle class but hit all the incentives which, after all, most people support). As Dave Weigel put it:

This is one of the dumbest ways a politician can get tripped up. No one — literally no one — has a serious proposal that would make “everyone” pay a minimum income tax. This was obvious in 2011, when Michele Bachmann was occasionally asked to explain this concept, and muttered some stuff about even paying “a dollar” would learn ’em about how government cost money. Any Democrat, especially a Virginia Democrat, knows that any statement that sounds like willingness to raise taxes can be turned into 100,000 or so TV ads.

The thing is: it’s not really Kaine’s position. If he wins, he’s going to vote the standard moderate/liberal mainstream Democratic line on taxes, supporting increased rates on wealthy people and status quo or tax cuts for everyone else. In fact, that’s what he said before he got tripped up, and that’s his official position. He’s not going to be a crazed renegade from his party on this issue. He just wandered away from his position during a debate.

What should we take from it? It’s possible that he screwed up because he was ill-prepared, or because he’s not well-versed in public policy in the first place, or because he performs poorly despite knowing his stuff, or because he’s just not very bright at all, or even just because sometimes these things happen and they don’t always reveal anything at all.

And so in a sane world, here’s what would happen. He’d walk it back (which I assume he’ll do soon or has already done). He’d take questions from the press, and demonstrate to them that he actually knows what he’s talking about on taxes; indeed, the way they covered it would be informed by their prior coverage of him and by how political insiders who knew him in Virginia thought about him, so press coverage of his walk-back would depend on his (earned) reputation plus how well he showed that it was a meaningless slip. And basically it would either totally go away as a story in the first place, or become part of a larger story about how a candidate for US Senate didn’t know what he was doing on major issues.

Some of that will, no doubt, happen. And some of it won’t. We’ll also have people in the press trying to get inside Kaine’s head to assess what it “really” means. We’ll have some who treat the whole thing as a chance to judge Kaine on a debate performance standard, instead of, you know, reporting on what he’s actually done in government and what he would do in the Senate if elected. That’s just the press; George Allen’s campaign will no doubt run ads on it right up through election day as long as it tests well, regardless of what Kaine says now. And part of the reason that can be successful is because a lot of the press will consider it fair game because Kaine said it, regardless of what he says before and after or how plausible it is that he meant it.

Note: I’m not saying that Kaine should get a pass. I’m saying that if he deserves a pass, this sort of thing should be forgotten, and there are some pretty good common-sense ways to to determine whether he deserves a pass or not — and that in a sane world, that’s what would drive, for example, the press coverage. On the other hand, if he doesn’t deserve a pass it’s because there’s a larger story than flubbing an answer in a debate, and that story really deserves to be covered because the abilities and skills of the candidates is generally a story that should be (but isn’t) covered.

(I should add here at some point that I don’t actually have any sense at all of Kaine’s reputation as far as any of this is concerned).

As I said, I’m not so broken up about it not being a sane world. Kaine knew perfectly well that he’s supposed to know give the correct pre-packaged answers to debate questions, and while that’s not a very sensible test of whether someone should get good press coverage, at least it’s a clear and publicized standard. Still, it’s worth mentioning that most of it doesn’t really make much sense at all.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.