The Ghost of Gaffes Past
A selection of gaffes from the 2010 campaign that we should forgive.
The 2010 midterms marked the final handover of political news judgment from the professionals to the amateurs and operatives. Consider: Four years ago, when then-Sen. George Allen of Virginia, then running for re-election, called a Democratic video tracker "Macaca," you could not see the video on your phone. You couldn't tweet it. It was largely up to news organizations whether they covered the video, which is why conservatives blamed the Washington Post for blowing it up into a scandal by covering every angle of the incident.
Isn't that quaint? Now we find out about damaging gaffes and videos because people record them (or clip them from TV) and put them online, then spread the word through social media. Most of the "must-see videos" from the trail this year got that way because conservative or liberal blogs were obsessing over them and the rest of the media had to notice. And that often led to a pack-dog mentality about these videos or other gaffes: Because everyone was talking about them, they had a political impact, and that often became more important than what the pols were actually saying.
All of these elections are history now, of course. But in the season's spirit of cheer and forgiveness, it seems fair to rescue a few of these gaffes or flubs from the feeding frenzies we left them in. It's pretty easy to tell if a flub is being manipulated for political impact. Is the title of the YouTube clip different from the quote in the article? Does it cut off in the middle of a sentence? I embed, you decide.
Christine O'Donnell: "Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?"
By Oct. 19, when O'Donnell debated Chris Coons at Delaware's Widener Law School, her image as a frothy Palin clone was impossible to shake. In a vacuum, her exchange with Coons would have done what she wanted to do—serve as a dog whistle to social conservatives while exposing Coons as a dogmatic liberal. But she wasn't running in a vacuum, and her question about the establishment clause kicked off days of mockery about how little she knew about the Constitution.What was O'Donnell trying to do? She wanted to signal to social conservatives that she was on their side of the church-and-state debate. A literal reading of the Constitution, she was saying, would tell you that there is no separation.
Slate's Will Saletan adeptly explained why, on the merits of how the Constitution is currently interpreted, O'Donnell was wrong. She was wrong as a political strategist, too—you don't win an election in Delaware by proving your social-conservative cred to an electorate that's voted Democratic for president in every election since 1992. But this was a pander, not a flub.
Nancy Pelosi: "We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it."
On March 9, the Speaker of the House spoke to the National Association of Counties about the health care bill that was days away from final passage. This was the phrase that launched a thousand campaign ads. Nine months later, this is remembered as Pelosi admitting what Tea Partiers had feared: that Democrats were ramming through bad bills without reading them. That wasn't actually what she was saying. The full quote:
You've heard about the controversies within the bill, the process about the bill, one or the other. But I don't know if you have heard that it is legislation for the future, not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America, where preventive care is not something that you have to pay a deductible for or out of pocket. Prevention, prevention, prevention—it's about diet, not diabetes. It's going to be very, very exciting. But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.
Pelosi was trying to say that the press was only reporting he-said-she-saids about the bill, and that its benefits would become clear, and popular, once it passed. They did become clear, though they have yet to become popular.
Ken Buck: "Why should you vote for me? Because I do not wear high heels."
The Tea Party's candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado was surging, with establishment pick Jane Norton vanishing into Bob Bennett-ville, when he appeared at an Independence Institute picnic and got a question—from a woman—about why he deserved her support. The results can be seen in the clip above.
What the hell made him want to say that? Was he making fun of Jane Norton's gender? Well, no. Norton was an early adopter of one of 2010's weirder campaign trends: female candidates challenging the manhood of male opponents. Norton was then currently running an ad attacking Buck for a third party group's ad attacking her. "You'd think Ken would be man enough to do it himself," said Norton in her ad. That explains what Buck said right after the "high heels" line: "She questioned my manhood. I think it's fair to respond. I have cowboy boots. They have real bullshit on them. That's Weld County bullshit, not Washington D.C. bullshit."
The "high heels" line became the basis for the attack that ended up bringing down Buck: Women, you can't trust this guy to defend you or the issues you care about. It's probably why Buck's decision not to prosecute a rape case as Weld County district attorney was used against him in a last-minute attack and the attack didn't backfire.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.