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.

Republican presidential candidates.
Have Perry, Cain, and Gingrich survived despite major problems because no one wants Romney to win the GOP nomination this soon?

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

“OK, that’s it,” said my guest a few nights ago. “That’s what?” “The Perry campaign: It’s officially over. Look, I’ve found the moment.” Together, in mild stupefaction, we watched as a fellow-creature, accoutred with gorgeous mammalian hair that is fully the equivalent of Mitt Romney’s, and fashioned in the very image of god, failed repeatedly to remember the names of the federal agencies that he had sworn to put out of their misery. We watched further, inwardly wincing and cringing, as the awful moment somehow managed to protract itself.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

This was mainly an effect of the candidate’s own non-talent for ingratiation; miserably seeking protection in the aw-shucks tone and failing—entirely failing—to grasp that “oops” in any accent sounds bad enough (just as well that Rick Perry wasn’t running in a heterosexual pride contest) but that in the tones of Texas (“Ee-yoops”) it more resembles the last-ditch whine of a luckless peon for mercy. I don’t see how it could have been any worse. Failure at this level—failure to recall your own self-administered briefing, plus a free tour for the public of all your least reassuring personal tics—is defeat on a scale that disqualifies the candidate from being in a debate in the very first place.

But I nonetheless closed the lid of the computer and handed it back. “He’s not done yet. Or he’s only out if he wants to quit for some other reason.” Why did I say and believe this? The first and fairly obvious reason is that nobody else in the lineup of either party has any special reason just yet to wish to see Perry’s back (in the political sense, I mean). But second, and initially harder to grasp, is this: By the time it got to me, the horror story about the federal cull, the Texas whatnot massacre, had already been assigned a name and a rating. It was, officially, “a gaffe.”

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That’s right. Not a spoiler, a wrecker, a campaign-ender, a pack-your-traps-and-plod-off moment—it wasn’t anything of the kind. Instead, it was something more in the nature of a “wake-up call” or whatever anodyne phrase was in use that week. And the news about gaffes is that they are being dumbed down.

It has long been understood that an apparent gaffe can be of great use to a candidate in trouble. When Ronald Reagan made some hapless blunder—about the famous ability to “recall” intercontinental ballistic missiles for example—and then came up grinning so fetchingly, it seemed to redound to his credit. Or, which is not perhaps quite the same thing, to his authenticity as a fallible mammal shaped in the image of god. Talking to his fans the next day, one could hear them saying that it was just the sort of all-too-human blunder that they might have made themselves. So who or what do you want as the nation’s chief executive? Some sort of robot? Or a regular guy who’s big enough to admit to a—careful how you phrase it here, don’t overdo the false humility—gaffe?

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