It isn’t only Romney who’s lost for words
The coverage of Republican hopefuls’ gaffes hides the fact that the entire US political class has little to say.
Forget Bill Clinton’s non-inhaling marijuana experimentation, forget John ‘flip-flop’ Kerry’s ‘I voted for it before I voted against it’ moment, forget Barack Obama’s ‘guns or religion’ putdown. With another six weeks to go before the 2012 Republican primary and caucuses schedule kicks off, the Grand Old Party’s presidential race contestants have already outgaffed presidential hopefuls of all creeds and times. Or so it would seem.
Since the debate season started in May, the nine GOP candidates have committed so many political faux pas it seems the whole campaign is simply fodder for late-night talk shows. But is the 2012 race really exceptionally blunder-filled or is it that gaffes have become an unprecedented talking point and concern? Gaffes have always happened, but this time around both the candidates and their observers seem more preoccupied with them than ever before.
At first glance, it’s not hard to see what all the fuss is about. With every televised debate, the media – of the mainstream, fringe and social kinds – are treated with more and more embarrassing soundbites which the shamed candidate’s campaign team then frenetically tries to deflect. And with the ever-growing use of tools like Twitter and YouTube, the effects of embarrassing moments are amplified.
A particularly cringe-worthy live debate moment was when Texas governor Rick Perry accused Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney of hiring a lawn company that employs illegal immigrants. Romney claimed he had told them ‘Look, you can’t have any illegals working on our property. I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake.’ Now, Pete keeps coming back to haunt Romney. As for Perry, his failure to name the third of the three federal agencies he vowed to eliminate as president provided the ‘oops’ moment of the 2012 race. His appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman the night after hardly repaired the damage.
And it’s not just the televised debates (there have been 11 so far) that have become forums for slips and ‘brain freezes’. Earlier this month, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain failed to remember just what is going on in Libya and how his approach to the situation there would have differed from President Obama’s. His shambolic statement during a newspaper interview was filmed and became an instant YouTube hit. It matched the collective viral impact of Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s many historical blunders. For instance, she has said that the Founding Fathers who wrote the constitution and the Declaration of Independence ‘worked tirelessly’ to end slavery when, in fact, many of them were slave holders. She also said that John Quincy Adams was one of the founders when, in fact, it was his father, John Adams, who was one. During her first visit to New Hampshire, Bachmann encouraged the state to be proud that this was where the shot that started America’s war for independence was fired. In fact, the shot was fired in Massachusetts. Not great for a candidate who uses her homepage to pay homage to the Founding Fathers.
No wonder, then, that Tuesday’s Republican debate on national security led to much anticipation about what kind of viral sensations the ham-fisted candidates might inspire this time around. Would Cain boast yet again that if he doesn’t know the answer to ‘gotcha’ questions like ‘who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan?’ he’ll simply say ‘I don’t know’? Would Bachmann suggest that the US can’t have troops both in Libya and Africa?
The candidates often appear as clowns spending millions of dollars while pundits enjoy the show and wait for them to drop off the stage one by one in some kind of slapstick misstep. At a recent New Yorker event, Steve Schmidt, a political strategist who was a key adviser to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, expressed consternation over the intellectual worth of some of the Republican candidates. He suggested that they do not reflect the serious ideas behind conservative thought. That’s hard to argue with. He also lamented that the election process has come to resemble reality shows. As in those shows, he suggested, the debates favour performance over substance. Others, including a former Reagan chief of staff, have made the same analogy and have suggested that having too many of these debates leads to a watering down of political discourse.
There is a great deal of truth to that analogy. The debates are often glitzy, cheesy affairs and the flurry of commentary during and after them resembles the speculation about who will be voted off American Idol. Yet, as Jason Linkins pointed out in the Huffington Post, the idea that this year’s race has seen an unprecedented ‘debate overload’ is peculiar since by this time in the 2008 campaign cycle there had already been 27 debates, 21 of which were televised. And despite claims that sites like Twitter intensify the impact of candidates’ statements like never before, social media and Web 2.0 were talked up as having a major influence in the previous race, too.
Now, however, many seem to believe that Americans are getting the dumbed-down debaters they deserve. Schmidt was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying that ‘All of these debates are taking place at a moment in time where shows like American Idol have become deeply ingrained in the culture. People watch a performance and render an immediate judgment.’ He said now that judgement is instantaneous and made by ‘the body politic’ rather than being channeled through spin doctors. Linkins also brings up the argument that the growing impact of the debates signals the diminishing power of the Republican elites to handpick candidates.
Certainly, the Grand Old Party doesn’t look anywhere near grand these days. The running candidates are often like caricatures taken straight out of liberal comedy shows, and that tradition of serious conservative thought that Schmidt celebrated at the New Yorker event is glaringly absent in the Republican debates. But the suggestion that this is what happens when the apparatchiks lose their grip and the public gets to choose also indicates a denial of responsibility on the elite’s part for the waywardness of the presidential candidates.
Gaffes are nothing new, but the extent to which that word has become associated with this year’s campaign is remarkable. This time around, there’s less to smooth those gaffes over with. In other words, when there is great political substance to a candidate’s campaign the gaffes can be more easily shown to be exceptions, mistakes, one-offs. And a candidate with great political weight could more confidently and honestly show that pundits and Twitterers who dwell on gaffes do so at the cost of tackling that candidate’s approach to the important questions that really matter to people. Instead, as it is, the Republicans have a bunch of candidates whose most memorable moments are embarrassing mess-ups while the party bigshots are convinced it’s all the consequence of the public being hooked on reality TV. That’s just grand old preposterousness.