More Phony Gaffe Coverage Than You’ll Ever Need

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 27 2014 10:59 AM

More Phony Gaffe Coverage Than You’ll Ever Need

103769120-florida-democratic-gubernatorial-candidate-alex-sink
Read Alex Sink's full quote before making up your mind about her "gaffe."

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It's a strange position I find myself in, defending Alex Sink. I spent five days in Florida's 13th District this week, for an election that ends on March 11, and Sink held no public events apart from a Tuesday morning candidate forum. Politico's Alex Isenstadt nailed it: Sink resents the national attention on this race, the reporters flying into Florida to write Obamacare stories. I flew into Florida to write an Obamacare story. So far, as I cobble together my main piece, Sink doesn't even come off well.

But if there's one thing worse than a protect-defense candidate, it's a fake narrative flogged to gullible reporters. The Hill has discovered the "immigration gaffe" story and written a classic of he-said-she-said-who-knows stenography. In it we learn that "Democrat Alex Sink gave an inelegant rationale for the need for immigration reform." How do we know?

Because, per the Hill, "the conservative site Newsmax" posted a clip of Sink saying "Immigration reform is important in our country ... because we have a lot of employers over on the beaches that rely upon workers, and especially in this high-growth environment, where are you going to get people to work to clean out hotel rooms or do our landscaping?" And "Republicans immediately pounced" on the comments, "with the Sarasota Republican Party blasting out the video with the label 'Racist Liberal Democrat Alex Sink," followed by Jolly's campaign calling the remarks "truly disturbing and offensive."

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Waders on, and let us march through this bog of bullshit.

- The clip referred to by the Hill was a short clip taken by a tracker. Trackers are, of course, patriotic American citizens, but they have agendas—to defeat the candidates they're tracking. Here, from my tape, is the whole Sink answer (after Sink delivers a zinger about Jolly changing his position, which might explain this whole distraction).

Immigration reform is important in our country. It's one of the main agenda items of the beaches' chamber of commerce, for obvious reasons, because we have a lot of employers over on the beaches that rely upon workers, and especially in this high-growth environment, where are you going to get people to work to clean our hotel rooms or do our landscaping? And we don’t need to put those employers in a position of hiring undocumented and illegal workers.
I believe that the Senate came together in a bipartisan way to forge a solution. It was a very tough negotiation, and Sen. Marco Rubio was a participant in that, and one of the leaders, and members of his own party has even come against him. For every example that you hear, I think about the high school valedictorian -- I believe he lives in this district now. High school valedictorian.
He was brought here when he was a young man, 9 or 10 years old. He didn’t choose to come here. His parents brought him. He was undocumented. And what does he do? How does he get an education? He did everything right. He became an incredible student. He even eventually ended up going to law school and becoming a lawyer. But right now he can't practice law because of his undocumented status. That’s not right. We need to bring these people out the shadows so that they're paying into Social Security, paying into Medicare, paying federal income taxes, so that they're not security issues. But they have to earn their way. So we need immigration reform and I would definitely join with Democrats and Republicans in the House and pass immigration reform as soon as possible.

Yeah, a lot of word salad there (though to my surprise it got applause at the time). Basically, Sink, speaking at a Chamber of Commerce event at a beach town, described why the beach towns' chambers wanted reform, and went from there. As far as I can tell, no outlet "teaching the controversy" about the first part of the answer has bothered to look for the full thing. But it's hard to argue that Sink is classifying immigrants as mere laborers when she spent more time talking about a kid who wants to be a lawyer than the people cleaning up the beachfront hotel rooms during spring break.

- Did Republicans "immediately" pounce? Not really. This incident occured 43 minutes into a 90-minute debate. Jolly did not respond in real time to Sink's comment, and didn't mention it in some short media interviews after the debate, a press conference across the street from the venue, or the scrum after the press conference. The Sarasota GOP (that county's directly south of FL-13, not included in the district) attacked Sink as a "racist liberal" in an email blast long after the debate ended. The Jolly campaign pronounced Sink's remark "offensive" and demanded she "apologize immediately" only when asked by the Hill.

Reader, I don't know you. Maybe you've been in a position where a person across from you—a person with whom you were competing for a job—said something "disturbing and offensive." Maybe you wanted them to apologize for it. And maybe you waited 24 hours to say that, through a spokesman, instead of mentioning it to anyone around you.

Nah. In that situation, you'd probably say something.

Sure, from time to time a comment doesn't register as offensive until fresh eyes look it over. The interviewer who got Todd Akin to define "legitimate rape" did not follow up—it didn't sound out of character for Akin. No mainstream media reporter in the room for "you didn't build that" led with that Obama quote. It took conservative bloggers (and some editing software) to explain that Obama had gaffed.

The amazing thing about the Sink "gaffe," though, is how it's being covered without any real effort put in to explain why it's offensive. Here's Florida GOP Chairman Lenny Curry:

Alex Sink’s comments are as shocking as they are narrow-minded. Floridians are people who want to work hard to make their dreams come true, and in our state no dream is out of reach. For Alex Sink to make such an implication about those who immigrate to Florida is insulting.

How did she imply that? By talking about an illegal immigrant who became valedictorian and went to law school? Curry's quote is gibberish to anyone who actually read the full Sink answer. Was the mention of manual labor offensive? Well, per Marc Caputo, if mentioning that hotels and landscapers employ illegal immigrants is racist and anti-Hispanic, then Marco Rubio's a racist who hates Hispanic people. I'm pretty sure he isn't.

It's all quite strange. The GOP could hit Sink for asking "who" would do menial beach hotel labor if illegal immigrants didn't, and insist that natural-born citizens need those jobs. But it's not saying that. It's hitting Sink as a racist, I think, because Republicans despise being accused of racism themselves. The old "can you imagine if a REPUBLICAN had said this?" game. 

The problem with that, as ever, is that it's totally divorced from policy. Currently, nearly every Republican in the House, including most of the Florida delegation, opposes the Senate immigration bill. Marco Rubio has suffered somewhat with conservative voters because he spent months pushing for what they consider "amnesty." Democrats want to legalize a bunch of immigrants; Republicans generally don't. In 2008 and 2012, more Hispanics went for the party that favored legalization than the party that didn't. This disturbs Republicans, but they aren't ready to shift policy to win those voters. They have identified some of their "messengers," like Iowa Rep. Steve King, as the real impediments to outreach. Hispanic voters are being alienated by offensive quotes. Hey, flip the script—accuse Democrats of being offensive!

This is schoolyard logic. The last Republican presidential nominee who cut into the Hispanic vote was George W. Bush. He happened to favor an immigration policy more liberal than anything now (or then) promoted by his party. Hey, maybe he could have junked that and pretended to be offended when Democrats mentioned that illegal immigrants often work in hotels and on lawns. It might have fooled some reporters. I doubt it would have worked as well with voters.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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