The Ghost of Gaffes Past
A selection of gaffes from the 2010 campaign that we should forgive.
Harry Reid: "Only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good."
On March 5, the majority leader welcomed the release of a slightly better-than-expected unemployment report with a quick Senate floor speech. Economists had been predicting that the economy would shed 75,000 jobs, after only 20,000 had been shed the previous month. Reid, in the artless way that he's perfected over 24 years in the Senate, made a basic economic point. Republicans put out an immediate press release: "Senator Reid's 'Big Day,' Unless You're One of Those 36,000." Sharron Angle spun off TV ads accusing Reid of being blasé about unemployment. The clip of just the "really good" moment was blasted out by everyone who had a grudge against Reid, which, in 2010, was a whole lot of people.
It was a little unfair. The Republicans' point in attacking Reid was that he was settling for bad economic news, unconcerned about changing course to boost the economy. Reid's point was that the economy was recovering. He was backed up by economists, who saw this in a constellation of numbers pointing to a 2010 recovery. They were wrong and Reid was wrong, but he wasn't gloating or satisfied about job loss.
Jerry Brown: "It's like Goebbels. Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda."
This is a rare gaffe in the Age of YouTube that persisted even though no video record of it exists. Radio reporter Doug Sovern bumped into California's attorney general during a bike ride and had an off-the-cuff, on-the-record talk about Meg Whitman's historic campaign spending and ad blitz. Brown, who hadn't had a tough race since 1982, riffed about how "Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda. He took control of the whole world. She wants to be president. That's her ambition, the first woman president. That's what this is all about." Cue: the outrage over Jerry Brown comparing his opponent to a Nazi.
And here's where my standards for gaffing do not match up with the standards that will be accepted by every other media outlet from now through the end of time. Universal rule of politics: No Nazi comparison is ever, at any time, a good idea. Actual rule of how people talk: No one faints, weeps, or suffers if someone points out—for example—that the greatest propagandist of all time was Joseph Goebbels. (Quick, name the second-greatest propagandist of all time. It's a pretty steep fall.) This is the verbal flub that we're most likely to hear again in 2011, either from a fascism-fearing Tea Party congressman or a Democrat panicking about the Tea Party. Just like in 2010, the freak-out will make more news than what the offender actually says.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.