Webster’s dictionary defines a gaffe as “a social or diplomatic blunder,’ but I prefer the definition journalist Michael Kinsley gave it: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”
In my opinion, the former definition is distinctly different than the latter. After all, the first scenario is usually a result from what any national-level politician has to deal with during campaign season: fatigue from campaigning at a strenuous pace for months on end. The second happens when a politician manages to say what they actually think, even when they and their handlers know they shouldn’t because it would hurt their campaign. The problem is that both sorts of gaffe can quickly get a campaign off message soon after they’re made.
For an example of the first, I’d refer to President Obama’s comment that “the private sector is doing fine” from a few weeks ago. Part of a response to a question about the Republican’s assertion that the President was blaming the Europe for his own economic failures, it was an off-the-cuff statement intended to set up his rhetorical point that the public sector was doing much worse in comparison to the private. The problem is that instead of setting his answer up as a good vs. bad scenario, President Obama should have set it up as bad vs. worse. It would have gotten across the same point without the weakness of it being taken out of context.
However, in American politics, the real gaffes are usually more of the unintentional truth telling type of gaffe. We, as a country, value honesty, yet when our politicians try to say what they truly think, it isn’t always valued in the way the politician would want. The success of Gov. Scott Walker in his recall election can be attributed to his “divide and conquer strategy” involving unions and Democrats that he candidly told his donors about months before the election. Bill Clinton, especially now that he’s retired, has become famous for speaking his mind openly about politics, and then getting caught in the backlash afterwards.
Most recently, Mitt Romney actually said that our country didn’t need more teachers, firefighters or police. To him, cutting government didn’t mean cutting “waste” or some typical politically fuzzy term, it straight up meant eliminating jobs and cutting costs, at all cost, regardless of whether the job was essential. That shouldn’t be shocking; it was what his private sector training taught him. His statement wasn’t an inadvertent slip of the tongue due to exhaustion, but instead accidental honesty. And while it’s honest, that’s not the type of honesty that a campaign like Mitt Romney’s wants to project in the general election. They’d rather save that honesty for the GOP base, with the rest of the American people finding out after election day.
At the end of the day, any sort of major gaffe has a tendency to derail a political campaign, especially one on the national level. Some will even take down a campaign, whether it’s the visual of looking idiotic in a battle tank as Gov. Michael Dukakis did, breaking the only campaign promise he ever made as President George HW Bush did over taxes, or the more sinister moments like the famous “Makaka” slur then-Senator George Allen hurled at an opposition campaign photographer.
The difference between the two types I’m talking about, however, is that while the first is essentially a flub, the second offers a pretty important window into a politicians mind. Voters need to both recognize the difference and realize that Governor Walker does believe that unions are something that need to be divided from the Democratic Party, that President Clinton does believe that private equity is something that shouldn’t be part of this presidential race, and that Governor Romney does believe that cutting teachers and public safety officials is a good way to cut deficits.
Just because we found this information out due to a mistake doesn’t make it any less true.