The Umbrage Wars: Optimal Bullets Edition

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 19 2012 9:25 AM

The Umbrage Wars: Optimal Bullets Edition

Yesterday afternoon, reporters with access to pool reports -- the granular updates on everything the candidates are doing -- flagged a quote that would appear on President Obama's Daily Show interview. "If four Americans are killed," the president would say, "it's not optimal."

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Not optimal? What fresh hell was this? The right side of the Internet, led by the Drudge Report, started lambasting the president for his callousness. Fox News brought Sen. John McCain on to condemn the comment, before it aired. "It's a very poor choice of words," prodded Greta Van Susteren.


Then the show aired, and we learned that Obama used the word because he was keying off of Jon Stewart's question.

STEWART: I would say and even you would admit it was not the optimal response -- at least to the American people as far as all of us being on the same page.
OBAMA: Here is what I will say, if four Americans get killed, it's not optimal. And we are going to fix it, all of it.

I get that the popular thing to do in a campaign's final stretch is hyperventilate about what a candidate says and call anyone who's not hypeventilating a biased tool of said candidate. But after I heard of the full Q&A, and after I saw the video, I felt gypped. Obama's use of the cold word "optimal" came as he tried to turn the conversation from the details of the administration's confusing response to the "we'll get these bastards" rhetoric he prefers.

As long as we're wasting some of the day on gaffe-monitoring, let's look at the Romney campaign's umbrage over a quote from Joe Biden. Around the same time that Optimalquiddick broke, the campaign alerted reporters to a speech where Biden said this:

I don’t understand how they believe, and they do believe -- Ryan has written a book called The Young Guns with two other members of the House, no, these are Republican leaders in the House. You had, unfortunately, the bullets are aimed at you.

"In the absence of a vision or plan to move the country forward," said Romney-Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck, "the Vice President is left only with ugly political attacks beneath the dignity of the office he occupies."

Let's leave aside, for now, the idea that "young guns" is a totally neutral metaphor, but that the metaphorical "bullets" that come out of guns, are just unacceptable to mention at any time. I can imagine Democrats huffing about a Republican who used the same phrase. Let's just look at the video. The crowd laughs and adds to what Biden's saying, which prompts the "bullets" line.

BIDEN: Ryan has written a book called The Young Guns with two other members of the House. No, these are Republican leaders in the House.
MAN: They got guns but no bullets.
BIDEN: You had, you had -- unfortunately, the bullets are aimed at you.

The Great Gaffe-Spotting Engine knows no logic or mercy. Right now it hurts the Obama-Biden ticket, because the benefit of the doubt on gaffes always cuts against the campaign that appears to be losing. This was why any and every slip Romney-Ryan made -- marathon times! -- became a September scandal, while Obama's occasional slips didn't go anywhere.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 



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