Kevin Drum wrote yesterday in response to a Jamison Foser tweet that bashed optics, gaffe and hypocrisy as the “dumbest words in politics.” I can’t say I have much use for “optics,” but I’ll definitely defend “gaffe” as a very useful word.
Yes, gaffes -- defined, more or less, as the occasions when a politician's actions or words cause some minor embarrassment -- are very real. They’re good fun, too! Many of us who pay a lot of attention to politics really enjoy watching the professionals slip up, whether it’s President Barack Obama talking about a “Jedi mind-meld” or Mitt Romney’s “couple of Cadillacs.” And then there’s the Kinsley gaffe, in which a politician accidentally tells the truth by misspeaking. These are quite entertaining, and every once in a while a little revealing.
The press doesn't go wrong by noticing or reporting gaffes. It’s when reporters elevate them to more than they are – pretending that a slip of the tongue somehow proves what a politician really believes, or that voters will be swayed by minor campaign kerfuffles.
But as President Jerry Ford found out in a 1976 debate, when he said that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,“ gaffes certainly do exist. And as long as they are given the (slight) weight they deserve, there’s nothing wrong with savoring the good ones. Just remember that Vice President Dan Quayle’s misadventures in spud spelling didn’t really prove that he wasn’t smart.
There’s a larger point here. Gaffes usually don’t matter, but there are plenty of things that happen in campaigns, and plenty of things politicians do while governing, that have no direct electoral or policy effects and are important anyway.
Political scientist bloggers (myself included) are quick to knock down hype that improperly connects small campaign events with election results. That's not to suggest that campaigns shouldn't be covered. Representation is in large part a matter of promises made during campaigns, actions taken by elected officials with those promises in mind, and then explanations of governing in light of those promises. And those promises aren’t always simple policy plans; they also pertain to representation style, which can include all sorts of behavior in office. For us to understand what politicians are up to, we need good reporting on how they campaign. Even if it won’t change whether they win or lose.
And keep the gaffe coverage coming. As long as we don’t overhype the effects of most gaffes, they remain some of the best stories in politics. Nothing wrong with that.
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