Everyone makes mistakes – it’s no big deal. If you dial the wrong number you say oops, sorry – or, if you’re in a fey mood, you might ask the other party that if you really did dial the wrong number, then why the hell did they answer? That’ll mess their mind – but you still got the wrong number. And of course you didn’t dial anything. You pressed some buttons or touched the right keypad icons – no one under fifty has ever seen a dial telephone. “Dial” is just a word we use. And the Brits might still say you “ring up” someone on the line, but no phones ring anymore, they play tunes, and most of those lines are now merely metaphoric – now it’s encoded digital packets bouncing from cell tower to cell tower and up to satellites and down again. But this too is no big deal. No one needs to be severely precise about all this – and everyone also make mistakes. Just don’t call your wife when you think you’re calling your hot girlfriend, or one of your many hot girlfriends. Tiger Woods knows about such things.
The general rule seems to be that precision matters, as does paying attention to detail. Most disastrous mistakes can be avoided. Don’t forget the wife’s birthday, and certainly not your anniversary – and remember to pay the bills that came in the mail, and keep the kids’ names straight. And remember to say no those slacks don’t make you look fat at all. It’s pretty simple really.
It gets harder in politics. Everyone parses your every word – the press records it all and your opponents will pounce on any misstep you make. Obama was talking about successful businessmen in America, all our entrepreneurs and such, and referring to their thriving companies, and, referring to the infrastructure that made that success possible, boldly declared “You didn’t build that!” That was a mistake. Precision matters. If he had only said “you didn’t build that stuff” – referring back to roads and bridges and the educational system and the whole free-market system that he had just been explaining, the stuff that had made their success possible – there would have been nothing to talk about. He would have been saying the obvious. But he left off that last word. Oops. Now he’s paying the price.
That was a mistake, and a politically serious one. But even Romney had to admit he knew what Obama had been trying to say and he’d look like a fool for nitpicking it all, so on CNBC he told Larry Kudlow this – “I found the speech even more disconcerting than just that particular line. The context is worse than the quote.”
So there you have it – to be fair, what Obama had said was an honest mistake, not adding that fifth word to clarify the context, and thus no big deal – but Romney went on to argue there’s really no such thing as an honest mistake. Romney was saying he somehow sensed the underlying tone of what Obama really meant, implying Obama had made some sort of Freudian slip – saying what he really meant. The poor choice of words – that missing word – had been inevitable, given Obama’s underlying problem with multimillionaires like him, the real heroes in America, those who made the country great and know more than anyone else and who should be in charge of things, and pay virtually no taxes. Obama inadvertently let slip his anger and resentment of successful folks, something that pathetic lifelong losers often do.
That’s one way to read this. There are no honest mistakes. You forget the wife’s birthday because you don’t really love her – not at all. You mix up the kids’ names because you think they’re snot-nosed little brats and you wish they’d never been born. And you didn’t pay the bills because you blew all your money on Japanese porn and Big Macs. Something else is going on. It always is – and doubly so in politics.
This is where the pundits come in, looking for gaffes – mistakes politicians make that might seem simply clumsy or imprecise, but which reveal that politician’s true character. That is after all what pundits do – they explain to the rest of us what’s REALLY going on. What seems like a boneheaded gaffe, often just laughable and quite minor, isn’t what you think.
That was what Romney was saying, but he was playing with fire. Slate’s David Weigel argues here that the most-discussed gaffes of the past months have often been fabricated by the opposing campaign – making something out of essentially nothing to enrage who they can enrage – but then, what happened with Romney in London, is something else entirely:
Compare this to what the British press has termed the “Romneyshambles.” By chance, I was in a BBC studio yesterday morning to do a radio interview with another outlet. Non-reporter staff - people who did not cover the campaign, much less work on it - were chattering about Mitt Romney. The general tone was that, yes, they’d had some problems staging the Olympics, but that was up to them to talk about, not some American who’d run his own Olympics 10 years earlier. As I waited, I saw Prime Minister David Cameron - who is, remember, the first Conservative PM since 1997 - make a backhanded slap at Romney. “Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere,” he said. Later, like everybody else, I saw London Mayor Boris Johnson - also a Conservative! - make fun of “some guy named Mitt Romney” in front of a massive Olympics crowd.
There was no rival campaign cooking this up. There was no social media director making sure people tweeted it, or hashtagged it or Google+’d it, if Google+ is still a thing. British Conservatives and media actually got pissed off at what they heard as an unhelpful insult. We’ve suffered through so many phony gaffes we’d forgotten what a real one looked like.
Kevin Drum carries that forward:
The fact that it’s real, and that Romney followed it up with a series of other odd, Palinesque gaffes, has the potential to make a small dent in Romney’s only real strength as a candidate: the notion that he’s smart, disciplined, and well-briefed. Not so much, it turns out.
But Drum says if you’re looking for mistakes – those gaffes of “the kind that reinforces what everyone thinks of a candidate already” – he recommends Romney’s “cringe-inducing” response to a question about the dressage competition:
I have to tell you, this is Ann’s sport. I’m not even sure which day the sport goes on. She will get the chance to see it – I will not be watching the event. I hope her horse does well.
This was painful to hear. I mean, what would any normal husband do if his wife were involved in an Olympic competition, even one he personally found boring? He’d attend! He’d cheer! That’s what married people do. But Romney has been taking some flak for being a rich dude lately, and he’s obviously calculated that being associated with a multimillion-dollar sport – and an obscure, sort of prissy one at that – wouldn’t do his campaign any good. So he threw his own wife under the bus. Mitt Romney is willing to be whatever the electorate wants him to be, and apparently he crunched the numbers in his head and decided that America’s heartland voters didn’t want him to be associated with his wife’s sport.
It’s a trivial thing, but still, in its own trivial way it’s really contemptible behavior, even for a guy who long ago decided he’d do anything to become president. The first time I read that quote I recoiled, and I still do a day later even after I’ve seen it a dozen times. What a gutless little weasel.
In short, this was a “trivial” mistake, but there are no mistakes, and in Israel Mitt Romney said this:
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy has outpaced that of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.” …
Romney said he had studied a book called “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” searching for a reason why two neighboring places could have such disparate prosperity.
“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from the book, by David Landes. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”
Here, Drum makes a differentiation:
Can I just point out the obvious here? This wasn’t a gaffe. This was a deliberate pander to the conservative base in the U.S., which pretty strongly believes that Palestinian culture is indeed corrupt, indolent, and sullen. Romney knows this perfectly well. He was demonstrating once again, in a very concrete way, that he’s no RINO. He really, truly feels tea-party style conservatism in his bones. It wasn’t just an offhand mistake.
There are no mistakes, as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman explains:
Much of what is wrong with the U.S.-Israel relationship today can be found in that Romney trip. In recent years, the Republican Party has decided to make Israel a wedge issue. In order to garner more Jewish (and evangelical) votes and money, the G.O.P. decided to “out-pro-Israel” the Democrats by being even more unquestioning of Israel. This arms race has pulled the Democratic Party to the right on the Middle East and has basically forced the Obama team to shut down the peace process and drop any demands that Israel freeze settlements. This, in turn, has created a culture in Washington where State Department officials, not to mention politicians, are reluctant to even state publicly what U.S. policy is – that settlements are “an obstacle to peace” – for fear of being denounced as anti-Israel.
Friedman says these folks might as well have met in Las Vegas. Sheldon Adelson could have saved the airfare and no one would have been talking about gaffes. There you can say the Palestinians are scum and everyone will shrug. They’re not next door – Hoover Dam is.
Slate’s Fred Kaplan disagrees, offering this thesis – “Mitt’s world tour revealed more than his gaffes. His foreign-policy ideas are actually quite scary.”
Kaplan is blunt:
Looking back at the voyage, the “gaffes” in London (which weren’t so much gaffes as they were revelations of Romney’s character) turned out to be not the afterburn of jetlag, as some of his aides suggested, but rather a preview of coming attractions.
Jerusalem should have been as easy as London should have been. There’s a time-honored shtick for politicians’ visits to the Holy Land: don the yarmulke, slide a note into the Wailing Wall, make a speech about the grave threat from Iran and America’s unshakeable commitment to Israel, bask in the applause, and off you go.
Romney did that, but then he had to go and attribute Israel’s wealth and technology, which the Palestinian territories never managed, to “culture” and “the hand of Providence” and so on, which appalls Kaplan:
Culture does have some bearing on the issue. But it takes a certain kind of blindness not to see – or, in Romney’s case, not to mention – the role of occupation and blockade in the thwarted progress of Palestinians, a creative and well-educated people.
Romney later said that he “did not speak about the Palestinian culture,” but of course he did. If someone says whites are better off than blacks because of culture, they are very clearly talking about black culture as well as white culture.
This leads to another, more vital question that the Romney trip raises: Does the candidate believe the things he says? Has he thought through their implications?
There are simple honest mistakes, and there are gaffes that reveal the true man, and then there are dangerous ideas:
If he really believes that Israelis are superior to Palestinians (and, let’s not mince words, that is what his remarks amounted to), what does that imply for the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in a Romney administration? If he believes that “the hand of Providence” led Jews to the Promised Land, how does he define that land? Does it include what some right-wing religious Jews call “Greater Israel,” and if so, does he therefore support the expansion, or at least oppose the restriction, of settlements?
Then there was his pledge to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s true capital and to relocate the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv. Does Romney know that every American president, dating back to Harry Truman, has declined to take a position on Jerusalem’s status precisely because it’s in dispute (at the time with Jordan)? Or that the Oslo accords of 1993, in an update of this acknowledgment, stated that the city’s status must be resolved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations?
In short, does Romney realize that he’s promising to overturn 64 years of U.S. foreign policy, the 19-year-old Oslo accords, and the basic premise of a two-state solution (which most Israelis favor)?
This is far beyond making a few verbal mistakes, and no, Romney does not have the same views on most foreign policy matters as Obama:
First, on many issues, Romney has articulated no views at all, except contradictory ones. He has criticized Obama for withdrawing prematurely from Afghanistan, but has also said he’d abide by the same 2014 deadline (which NATO set at Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s request). He has blamed Obama for causing “the Arab winter” (as he calls it), but hasn’t explained how he would have handled the uprisings differently or controlled their outcomes any better. (Would he have bolstered Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt? Funneled more aid to the rebels? In either case, how, and to what end?)
Second, there are many crucial issues on which the two disagree profoundly. Romney has denounced Russia as America’s “number-one geopolitical foe” and assailed the New START arms-reduction treaty as a danger to national security. U.S.-Russian relations aren’t without their tensions, but the realms of cooperation opened up by Obama’s “reset” policy – on trade, counterterrorism, nuclear nonproliferation, Iranian sanctions, among others – are well worth preserving. Romney has said he would declare China to be a “currency manipulator,” which could well unleash a trade war that we cannot afford. He has called for spending 4 percent of GNP on the military, as distinguished from Obama’s 3 percent, without saying how he would spend it or where he would get the extra $1 trillion over the next six years.
You can laugh at Romney’s stumbles and sigh sadly at all the obvious pandering, but these things are not funny, and certainly the issue of Iran is not funny:
It is often stated that both Romney and Obama call for ratcheting up sanctions against Iran and for taking no military option “off the table.” But Romney went further than this on his European trip, or at least his senior foreign-policy adviser Dan Senor did. “If Israel has to take action on its own,” Senor said in a briefing before Romney’s speech in Jerusalem, “the governor would respect that decision.”
This is a very different stance from current U.S. policy. Obama has sent his top military officials to Israel several times, has made repeated assurances to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and has re-upped security assistance to the Israeli Defense Forces, precisely to dissuade Israel from attacking the Iranian nuclear sites on its own. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have war-gamed this scenario, and have told their Israeli counterparts the results: Israel, they say, may have a good first couple of days, then their world goes to hell – multiple terrorist attacks, a cut-off of oil supplies, a strengthening of the mullahs’ regime, and (this is the twister) a resumption of Iran’s nuclear program within a few years.
The general rule seems to be that precision matters, as does paying attention to detail:
Iran’s nuclear program may be the knottiest issue in the world. The trade-offs are harrowing, and Israel’s worries are hardly baseless. But it’s the height of irresponsibility for a presidential candidate, or his top foreign policy aide, to give the Israelis a green light to attack. (Senor later backpedaled a bit, saying that “take action” didn’t necessarily mean military action, but what else could it possibly mean? Sanctions? Already doing that. Cyber-attacks to screw up their centrifuges? Doing that too.)
All the little mistakes, all the possibly revealing gaffes, do add up to something worth considering – chaos and disaster. Obama’s foreign policy in these matters may seem too careful and too precise, and insufficiently laudatory of everything Israel wants to do on a given day – all of it may even seem boring – but it staves off disaster. It’s kind of like remembering your wife’s birthday.
But we love following all the gaffes – Obama fails to add that one word that would have kept him out of trouble – Romney insults the British, and then his wife, and then everyone else in the world but Sheldon Adelson. It’s fun. But here’s a thought. At the Huffington Post, Sam Stein suggests here that all the coverage of these “gaffes” is devastating the spontaneity and authenticity of the candidates:
Whether at home or abroad, presidential candidates’ so-called gaffes – and the media’s preoccupation with each inartfully phrased or impolitic remark – have defined the 2012 election. Gaffes get tweeted, blogged, and reported. Cable pundits declare them game-changers. And rival campaigns amplify them through any means possible. When that’s done, the story becomes whether the campaign gaffed in cleaning up its gaffe.
Reporters complain that Romney’s too robotic and Obama’s too detached. But given that media’s extensive coverage of gaffes so far, including at The Huffington Post, the chances of unscripted moments or off-the-cuff question-and-answer sessions seem likely to grow more remote from now until November. Reporters, in short, may be facilitating the very reality they detest.
Stein wants honesty, perhaps like a reality show – but he can’t mean that. He’s just tired of all the gotcha stuff, as we all are. But Ed Kilgore worries a bit:
That may well be true. But like every “even-handed” effort to generalize about candidates and campaigns and their treatment by the media, there’s a danger involved in throwing up one’s hands and refusing to make distinctions. Perhaps refusing to write about “gaffes” would reduce the temptation of campaigns to exploit, exaggerate, or even invent them, but it would also eliminate any effort to call out blatant lies and distortions as distinctive and deplorable events.
And who, by the way, is going to referee coverage of “gaffes”? Fox News is going to use whatever ammunition it has been given by the Romney campaign and its supporters. More honest observers can try to tell the truth – difficult as it is sometimes – or just let the lies and spin take over. Before you know it, we could reach a juncture where “liberal media” are afraid to report a startling admission by Mitt Romney about the contents of the Ryan Budget – because no candidate in his right mind would do that!
Better to hash it all out in the context of what the two candidates actually seem to stand for.
And how do you know what they stand for? Yes, all the little mistakes, all the possibly revealing gaffes, may very well add up to something worth considering. Romney really should have stayed in the UK for his wife’s dressage event. There would have been fewer of those moments.