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The year of foot-in-mouth disease: Paul Waldman's typology of gaffes

to come up with programs to do away with Medicaid and Medicare?" Democrats leaped on the remark in glee, but Thompson's remark illustrates the defining feature
Paul Waldman

by Paul Waldman


This hasn't been the most exciting campaign in history, or the most inspiring, or the nastiest or the nicest. If there's anything we'll remember 2012 for in years to come, it may be the extraordinarily large amount of time we spent talking about what some candidate or other said. This will go down as the year of the gaffe.

Almost all gaffes are overanalyzed and overblown. There has never been a president about whom we said, "If only we had paid more attention to that embarrassing thing he said that one time on the campaign trail, we would have known him so much better!" But unfortunately, it looks like gaffes will get more attention, not less, in years to come. We have so dramatically increased our ability to capture and disseminate them that we barely need to discuss anything else. Every campaign of consequence–even some at lower levels like House races–now employs "trackers" to follow their opponents around and record everything they say, waiting for that magical moment. Republicans and Democrats have built up competing communication apparatuses to make sure everyone has heard of the gaffe within hours, and reporters starved for something to talk about eagerly pass on the latest offense to decency and American values.

But every once in a while, a controversial statement can actually help us understand a candidate better. So if we are to separate the genuinely revealing from the inconsequential, it might be helpful to keep in mind the different kinds of gaffes, ranging from the silly to the unforgiveable. Herewith, then, is my gaffe typology.

The Head-Scratcher. This is the purest kind of gaffe, one that can't be explained away or made to sound more reasonable with more context, a statement that makes everyone say, "What?!?" A typical head-scratcher reinforces something bad that people already think about you. When Michele Bachmann said that a woman told her that her daughter got vaccinated for HPV and then became mentally retarded, people said, "There's crazy Michele Bachmann, being crazy again." Or the head-scratcher might violate a basic rule of campaigning, like "pretend you're a regular fella" (for instance, Mitt Romney telling an audience that his wife has "a couple of Cadillacs" or saying that although he isn't a big NASCAR fan, "I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners"). Easily check-able falsehoods, like Paul Ryan's recent claim that he had run a sub-three-hour marathon, are head-scratchers. Then-senator George Allen's 2006 "macaca moment," one of the few cases in which a gaffe could be said to have destroyed an entire candidacy all by itself, was a classic head-scratcher, a bell that couldn't be unrung.

The Out-of-Context Quote. This kind of gaffe may not even be noticed as a gaffe until the opponent gets a hold of it, takes it out of its context, and puts their own spin on what the speaker "really" meant to say. Both Romney and Barack Obama have fallen victim to the out-of-context quote this year. When Romney said, "Corporations are people, my friend," he meant that corporate profits eventually go to people like shareholders, not that corporations are actually people. And when Obama said about businesses, "you didn't build that," the "that" he was referring to was roads and bridges. But no matter; you can't expect your opponent to give you the benefit of the doubt.

The "Did I Mention I'm An Idiot? Allow Me To Demonstrate." If you needed proof that you don't have to be all that bright to run for public office–even the highest office in the land–this year's Republican primaries offered plenty of evidence. Rick Perry flamed out spectacularly when in a debate he found himself unable to name the three federal government departments he wanted to eliminate, then followed his confusion up with the immortal "Oops," as in, "Oops, I guess running for president wasn't such a great idea after all." Even he couldn't match Herman Cain, who dismissed the idea that he should know "the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan," then showed his grasp of foreign policy with a hilarious, eyes-toward-the-ceiling blunder when asked what he thought about our involvement in Libya. Though America was engaged militarily there at that moment, Cain looked like someone had just asked him to explain the third law of thermodynamics.

The Slip of the Tongue. In our everyday lives, we forgive each other our slips of the tongue, but politicians don't get the same courtesy. Tommy Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor who was Secretary of Health and Human Services for George W. Bush and is now running for the Senate, recently asked an audience, "Who better than me, who's already finished one of the entitlement programs [welfare] to come up with programs to do away with Medicaid and Medicare?" Democrats leaped on the remark in glee, but Thompson's remark illustrates the defining feature of the Slip of the Tongue: If seconds afterward you read back to the candidate what he had just said, his response would be, "Oh my god, is that what I said? That's not what I meant at all!" I'm pretty sure that even if in his heart of hearts Thompson would like to "do away with Medicaid and Medicare," he'd never be dumb enough to say so out loud. All slips of the tongue should be forgiven.

The Opinion Clearly Expressed, Then Later Retracted. This type of gaffe is often the most consequential. In this type, the candidate says what he thinks, then changes his mind once he's criticized for it. We've seen many of these this election, from Newt Gingrich calling Paul Ryan's budget "right-wing social engineering" early in the campaign to Todd Akin's rather interesting views on "legitimate rape" and the capabilities of those mysterious ladyparts. The leading contender for gaffe of the year–Mitt Romney's thoughts on the mooching 47 percent of Americans ("I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their own lives") qualifies as this type.

If Romney fails to recover from his current position, commentators and historians will point to the "47 percent" gaffe as the campaign's key moment. That may be less than accurate, and it may not be fair. Yet it's hard to remember a presidential candidate who has committed as many gaffes of as many different types as Mitt Romney and simultaneously spent as much time and effort trying to draw attention to what he claims are his opponent's gaffes. For a while, the entire Romney campaign reoriented itself around "you didn't build that," which became the topic of speeches, campaign events, television ads, and most of the Republican convention. So Romney can hardly complain that people are paying too much attention to something he said when he thought nobody was recording him. He's as responsible as anyone for this campaign's obsession with the offhand remark. And there's still a month to do before Election Day–who knows what statement will get him in trouble next?


Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington PostThe Los Angeles TimesThe Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.