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Biden, Akin, et al: Not all gaffes are created equal

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Aug. 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
August 21, 2012 5:44 pm

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Tuesday, Aug. 21:

One of the most annoying features of modern American politics is the scripted politician. He or she memorizes a set of consultant-generated talking points, repeats them with monotonous efficiency and never lets the public glimpse a real human being with thoughts that have not been preapproved and focus-group-tested. So why do politicians behave that way? Simple: They want to avoid the dreaded “gaffe.”

Gaffes have become one of the dominant topics of this election season. But contrary to what you might assume, all gaffes are not created equal. Here, we offer voters a guide to which stumbles warrant a response and which deserve to be excused or ignored:

A common type is the quote ripped from context, framed to distort the candidate’s actual views and blown up 10 times its original size. Mitt Romney found his way into this phenomenon when he was quoted as saying, “I like being able to fire people.” His critics pretended he was showing disdain for the unemployed, when he was really extolling the value of letting consumers “fire” companies that treat them poorly.

Something similar occurred when Barack Obama said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” The “that” in his statement, though not entirely clear, seemed to refer to the infrastructure that businesses need to operate in a modern economy. The valid criticism was not that Obama thought business people didn’t build their businesses, but that he discounted the importance of that entrepreneurial contribution. This pertinent point, however, was lost in the uproar.

Then there is the gaffe committed when someone dares to speak impromptu on a controversial topic. Among the politicians prone to this sort of spectacle are Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill.

Biden made news¬†the other day when he got carried away in front of an audience that included many African-Americans, warning that Republicans are “going to put y’all back in chains.” Walsh attracted attention recently when he asserted, in reference to the threat of Islamic terrorism, “It’s here. It’s in Elk Grove. It’s in Addison. It’s in Elgin.”

The vice president later insisted he didn’t mean to make any racial allusions, and Walsh acknowledged that he got “a little ahead of myself with my language.”

Maybe both were hoping to inject some unworthy elements into the electoral bloodstream while escaping responsibility. But we’re inclined to give the benefit of some doubt to any elected official or candidate who refuses to be enslaved by scripts and teleprompters. Walsh and Biden deserve some credit for not poll-testing every utterance before speaking.

But spontaneity is not an excuse for ignorance or egregious blindness. Both were on display when Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., a U.S. Senate candidate, was asked about his opposition to legalized abortion even in cases of rape. “First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy from rape) is really rare,” he said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

The comment sparked justified outrage from those who pointed out that rape often does result in pregnancy and that the bizarre term “legitimate rape” demeans victims of sexual assault. (For what it’s worth, Akin says he meant “forcible.”)

Akin was at fault¬†for failing to learn basic facts related to a long-standing position of his. It wasn’t a case of saying something he didn’t really mean, but rather of saying something he clearly did. So embarrassing was his comment that even though Akin apologized, Republicans immediately disowned it, with some urging him to withdraw from the race.

Sometimes so-called gaffes are refreshing instances of truth-telling, and sometimes they’re verbal stumbles that misrepresent what the speaker had in mind. Voters — and commentators — shouldn’t get too worked up when someone gets caught in a “gaffe” of this nature.

Where they’re entitled to make a big deal of a gaffe is when it reveals something genuine and deeply unsettling about a candidate. That’s the case with Akin, whose episode deserves far sterner treatment than most of the incidents that qualify as gaffes.

As a rule, the biggest problem with our campaigns is that so many politicians recite canned lines in response to every question — and generally refuse to engage serious issues except as a means of partisan propaganda. But the best alternative to that is not giving pols a free pass on any statement they choose to blurt out.

Fortunately, politicians don’t have to choose between being programmed robots and thoroughgoing fools. It’s possible to be smart as well as spontaneous.

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