Why There Have Been So Many “Gaffes” in the Republican Presidential Debates, and Why Republicans Tolerate Them

A wartime lexicon.
Nov. 28 2011 1:17 PM

The New Gaffe

How the Republican presidential candidates are benefiting from their “gaffes”: They’re not unforgivable, just imprudent.

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If I am right about this, it would go some way to explaining the huge effect that a non-gaffe can sometimes have. You know the sort of thing I mean: Howard Dean’s Bates Motel squawk was nothing in literal terms when set beside Perry’s monumental self-sabotage. But the fact was that people did think they had detected a “contents under pressure” streak in Dean, and this looked like its blazing occurrence at twilight’s last gleaming. In similar or related ways, Al Gore didn’t really claim to have invented the Internet or been the whole inspiration for Love Story; Dan Quayle never expressed surprise that they didn’t speak Latin in Latin America (it would have been a highly ingenious blunder for him to have made); and Gov. Jerry Brown and the word “moonbeam” have no obvious connection of any sort. But somehow there seemed plausibility—for quite other reasons—to the insinuations. And that’s often enough. One day I’ll make a fortune by discovering who is on the committee that decides as between gaffes and terminal screw-ups, and then by discovering how one gets to join said committee. Someone must know.

Ross Douthat has almost claimed to be one of those people. In a  column in the New York Times last month, he posited an actuarial reason to keep the Republican field of candidates as full, and as open, as humanly possible: Romney has already won. So no need to disqualify any of the lesser candidates with terminal screw-ups. But—and here is where Douthat’s column gets rather clever—Romney isn’t necessarily going to wrap it up soon, and neat, and tight, because my great profession cannot yet bear to declare him victorious. My profession (or craft or racket) is not alone in this reluctance. We must also consider the pollsters, the farmers, and tenders of focus groups, the producers of candidate debates, the places where they sing and where new and aspirant pundits are constantly being grown, like exotic outgrowths on a moistened sponge in the dark. (You understand that I am here offering only a rough précis of Douthat’s more rigorous presentation.)

Reflecting on this, there seems more grist to it now than there did then. Can anyone imagine a member of the male sex making a bigger hash of a harassment charge that Herman Cain has recently done? Or causing himself to look more like an ignorant fool than did Cain when given—with ample notice—a chance to review and criticize the president’s policy in Libya? And yet there he still, inarguably, is. Moving up the mental scale a bit, it must be a while since the contrast between a candidate and his two positions on an issue were as wildly at odds as those of Newt Gingrich and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae. Sliding down a snake or two, Michele Bachmann has continued to amaze with every opportunity given her. Mounting a ladder only to get a view of some dismaying serpents, one scans a briefing by “Republican strategist” Alex Castellanos in which he seems to suggest that a Sarah Palin endorsement of Newt Gingrich could be offset only by an immediate declaration of Mike Huckabee for Mitt!

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Forced to look at this picture for a quaking second or two, one sort of understands why it is that people want to buy time, and to keep the warm and reassuring pack together. This would probably lead to an America where calm Mormon management would seem suddenly “normal.” It remains to be seen whether such a weird outcome would be worth a decline in the real currency of the gaffe.