Why 'gaffes' resonate

Posted Thursday, September 20, 2012 in Politics

Why 'gaffes' resonate

by Gina Hamilton

Mitt Romney has had another horrible, no good, very bad week.  And to use a baseball term, all of it was unforced error ... in other words, it was his own damned fault.

From the premature call on the issue of Libya and Egypt last Tuesday night which could only have been done for political gain, throughout his inept attempt to defend those remarks (while President Barack Obama continued to respond ... well, presidentially), to his response when the secretly taped "47 percent" discussion was revealed (which he is still trying to spin, incredibly), Romney has had a tough time.  His poll numbers, already disappointing, sank even further, giving Obama a wide lead in electoral states that Romney must win in order to be viable.

Now, it's seven weeks to the election, and something tragic and unforeseen could still happen, but as Romney said, in the now infamous "47 percent" tape, he'd be ready for such an occurrence, which caused his numbers to tank even more.  No one wants to imagine that a terrorist attack, in which Americans might be taken hostage or even killed, would prompt a political response.  We know it sometimes does, but it always seems unseemly, somehow, when it happens, and no one ever boasts to donors that he would use such an event for political gamemanship ... well, not until now.

We saw a bit of this after Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others were assassinated in Libya last week.  Romney, perhaps with images of Ronald Reagan's unpleasant politicking around the issue of the hostages in Iran, jumped the gun and ignored the timeline of the unfolding of the tragedy.  He looked like a fool, and was told he looked like a fool by virtually every rational Republican left, but he couldn't stop talking, trying to spin his initial response, for days.  Obama, on the other hand, issued a grave warning to those who killed Stevens, and led the nation in mourning the loss of one of the State Department's finest diplomats. From an image perspective there was no contest.

But the worst thing about unforced errors in general, is that they tend to reinforce the queasiness that people are already feeling about a candidate.

For instance, in 2004, Democrat Howard Dean was thought to be a little unstable generally, and when, after losing Iowa, he attempted a full-throated rally cry to his supporters, voters and pundits alike saw the moment as verification of Dean's somewhat irrational behavior, and his campaign soon fell apart.  Later that summer, John Kerry, who had the reputation of being a flip-flopper, effectively lost the election when a campaign ad ran with Kerry saying, "I actually voted for the bill ... before I voted against it." 

In 2008, Republican John McCain's unforced error was appearing uncertain when asked by a reporter how many homes he owned.  The answer was ten, but McCain's inelegant way of trying to nuance the situation led people to reach one of two unfortunate conclusions ... that McCain was old, and potentially losing it mentally, or that he was superwealthy and out of touch.  Since both issues were concerns for the electorate, McCain never again was within striking distance of a victory.

Concerns about Romney are stark.  First, that he really doesn't understand working people or the middle class has been made clear over and over by Romney's own words -- for instance, claiming that middle income people earn between $200,000 and $250,000 per year ... the actual figure is closer to $50,000 ... and a series of missteps, some mere sound bytes, about the needs of real middle income people, for instance, telling a class of students to borrow money from their unwealthy parents to pay for college.  Romney doesn't seem to live in the same world that everyone else seems to live in, so when a major malfunction, like the 47 percent chat, occurs, it simply reinforces what everyone already believes to be true about the candidate -- that he is significantly out of touch and really doesn't care about anyone except those in his social class.

Later, when the election is dissected, the "47 percent" whopper will probably end up being the deciding factor. 

Candidates of both parties should probably strive not to appear to be a caricature ... or a stereotype ... of what people believe their worst attributes to be.

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