Sunday, September 14, 2008

Who will gaffe next?

We are witnessing critical campaign days lost for Senator Obama as we wrestle with the inner meaning of lipstick on a pig. Was it directed at Senator McCain, as seems indicated by its context, or was it a subliminal attack on Governor Palin? Was it a Freudian slip or too brilliant by half?

A few weeks ago Senator McCain could not answer how many homes he had, and said his staff would have to get back to reporters on that. Wrong answer!

None of these are really relevant in this epochal campaign, perhaps as significant to the future of the Republic as Abraham Lincoln’s 1964 reelection. The nation is leading the international war against terror. The battle fronts are not just in Afghanistan and Iraq for no fixed battle lines exist in the global struggle against radical Islam. America is continually at risk of weapons of mass destruction. How we confront our mortal enemies is critical to the survival of the country. And we’re talking about “Lipstick on a pig.”

In addition, the laws of supply and demand must be confronted with our energy shortages. That certainly outweighs how many homes McCain may or may not technically own.

The country is confronting major economic disruptions. Whether or not the economy is technically in a recession, Detroit, banking, housing, credit markets, retail and restaurants clearly are. Aviation is near implosion.

But we are engaged in meaningless battles entailing much ado about nothing.

Gaffs can be Freudian slips, sleep, alcohol or drug induced misstatements or the truth, brutally honest statements, open mikes, double statements, off the record statements, or sometimes outright lies.

So why are we concentrating are gaffes? Where is the debate on the issues?

First, gaffes can control an election. This election may be so tight as to come done to a last minuted gaffe.

Second, we essentially know nothing about two of the four candidates: Senator Obama and Governor Palin. Thus, every piece of information, even if seemingly trivial, is welcome.

Third, this era of mass communications allows us to track every word, every second of election campaigns.

Fourth, negative campaigns and “gotcha” work.

Fifth, they can fill in voids and reinforce preexisting impressions.

Two classic examples of gaffes deciding elections were in 1976 and 1984.

The second Carter-Ford Debate in 1976 witnessed a colossal misstatement by President Ford: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” Time Magazine appropriately headlined “The Blooper Heard Around the Globe.”

President Ford was almost able to pull out a victory, but he could never overcome the perception that “he was out of it.”

President Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Carter’s ineptitude was so great that referring at the Democratic National Convention to Senator Hubert Horatio Humphrey as Senator Hubert Horatio Hornblower did not affect the November election.

The second example was in 1984. Senator Gary Hart sought the Democratic nomination against Vice President Mondale. Mondale was in the lead and probably headed to victory, but his first ballot victory was cemented late in the primary campaign at a Hart rally in Bel Air, California, where the Senator and his wife, Lee, were present.

Hart delivered a bad news and good news joke. The bad news was that he would be campaigning apart from Lee, but “the good news is that she campaigns in California while I campaign in New Jersey.” She interjected “I got to hold a Koala bear” and then the Senator added “I won’t tell you what I got to hold: samples from a toxic waste dump.” The joke was on Senator Hart as he lost New Jersey by 15 points.

Senator Kerry’s brilliant statement: “I voted for it before I voted against it” became an instant classic. It didn’t cost him the election, but it didn’t help.

Michelle Obama’s statement that “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country” did not come out the way she intended, but it added to the perception that the Obama’s are not representative of traditional American values.

A gaffe can also be one of omission. For example, Senator Obama substituted for Senator Kennedy at the Wesleyan University Commencement. With his usual eloquence, he praised all forms of public service for the graduates. However, he failed to mention the most personal of all service commitments: the military

Sometimes you don’t want to be too blunt and truthful. When pushed on why she was staying in the race when it became clear Senator Obama would win the nomination, Senator Clinton stated: “We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.”

Senator Obama’s campaign has been responsible for two classic two-timing events this year. The first occurred during the Ohio primary when he bitterly attacked NAFTA and stated he would opt out when elected. His senior economic advisor, Austan Goolsbee, then privately told the Canadian government not to worry; it was “just campaign rhetoric.”

The second was more critical. He has campaigned heavily for Blue Collar voters, but then was caught on tape April 6 at a closed fundraiser in San Francisco stating: “People don’t vote on economic issues because they don’t expect anybody is going to help them … They don’t believe they can count on Washington. You go into their small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small town voters in the Midwest, the jobs have gone now for 25 years … And it’s not surprising then that they get bitter; they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them … as a way to explain their frustrations.”

That statement constituted a double whammy. First, he slammed a key constituency of the Democratic Party while playing to the prejudices of the San Franciscans, and reinforced the Obama’s image as elitists. He displayed a traditional bicoastal contempt for Flyover America, better known as the heartland of America. Senator Obama is from Chicago and not the rural heart of Illinois. The three years I lived and taught in Ada, Ohio (population 3200) taught me solid Midwestern values.

When Rev. Rick Warren asked Senator McCain about how do you define rich? McCain’s initial answer was “I think rich should be defined by a home, good job, and education,” but then he flippantly continued: “How about $5 Million?”

Senator Obama had his own faux pas at the same function at Saddleback Church. When asked when life begins, he responded “That’s above my pay grade.”

Some gaffs may be caused by weariness in hundreds of appearances during an interminable campaign, but we do not expect a graduate of two Ivy League universities to state that he had campaigned in 57 states and had one to go.

Even better was on Memorial Day when he orated to the audience: “As we honor our unbroken line of fallen heroes, and I see many of them in the audience today.” Obama must have thought he was still campaigning in Chicago where the dead are known to make their votes count by voting early and often.

Another Obama instant classic was on July 8 in Powder Springs, Georgia. He agreed that immigrants should learn English, but added “Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English – they’ll learn English – You need to make sure your child can speak Spanish.”

He’s right about that, but then joked about Americans who “go over to Europe, and all we can say is ‘merci beaucoup,’” which is French and not Spanish.

Senator Kerry had a wonderful moment in 2004. He had been campaigning in Ohio and proclaimed “Nothing’s better than Buckeye football.” The next evening in Taylor, Michigan he stated “I just go for Buckeye football; that’s where I’m coming from.”

And then there are the lies which get repeated so often they become part of the candidate’s bio. However, Senator Clinton did not dodge sniper fire in Bosnia and she was not named for Sir Edmund Hillary. Similarly, Senator Obama did not have an uncle who liberated Auschwitz and his parents did not unite because of the bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama, which occurred 4 years after he was born. President Reagan also did not participate in the liberation of Nazi concentration camps.

All three have compelling personal stories and no to inflate themselves.

We learnt a few years later from the Wall Street Journal that Vice President George H. W. Bush’s resonating Convention promise of “No new taxes” was simply a campaign promise he never intended to keep.

Gaffs can also include photo ops. The pictures of Governor Dukakis in a tank in 1988 and Senator Kerry duck hunting in Ohio in 2004 are priceless Kodak moments.

Sometimes we never get to see Freudian slips. Senator Dole campaigned for the GOP nomination in 1988. He was trying to discount his reputation for supporting tax increases, so he twice tried to tape “The Pledge” in the New Hampshire Primary. New Hampshire voters, especially Republicans, abhor tax increases so “The Pledge” is to not raise taxes. However, the Senator just could not say “I will not raise your taxes.” No matter how hard he tried, it came out “I will raise your taxes.” The tape never ran.

So who will make the next great gaff this election cycle? My guess is Senator Biden, but if it’s either Senator McCain or Governor Palin, the media will not let us hear the end of it. The media crucified Vice President Quayle for spelling potato with an “e.” Potatoe is an uncommon, but acceptable spelling.

Senator Biden had two great comments during his unsuccessful primary campaign earlier this year. First, he referred to Senator Obama as “The first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice looking guy.” His other Mrs. Malaprop moment came when he stated “You cannot go to a 7 Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donut unless you have a slight Indian accent. It’s a point. I’m not joking.”

Earlier insensitive moments cost Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butts his position in 1976, James Watt the Secretary of Interior in 1983, and Trent Lott the Senate majority leadership.

My money's on Biden.

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