Road closure barricades sit on the side of a road to be used during the first… (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images )
With the first presidential debate Wednesday night, we will enter the last chapter of a campaign dominated by gaffes.
A gaffe, as the fellow once said, is when a politician tells the truth.
We journalists love gaffes. They are compact little newslets that save us from having to write about sprawling and difficult issues like the economy. With the first presidential debate Wednesday night, we will enter the last chapter of a presidential campaign dominated by gaffes.
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Mitt Romney has been both lifted up and tossed down by the ruthless gods of gaffery. He became the front-runner for the Republican nomination when Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he wanted to abolish three federal departments but could name only two of them. It seemed obvious that Perry really didn't give a hoot about abolishing these departments. He had just been spoon-fed by his hired-gun political strategists. Also, it seemed that he might not be all that bright.
Neither of these matters was a surprise. But a gaffe is more likely to damage a candidate if it confirms a previous narrative or prejudice than if it tells you anything new.
But if someone else's gaffe got Romney the nomination, a gaffe of his own may cost him the election. The line on Romney was that he is a rich guy with no understanding of or sympathy for the middle class. So that video of Romney talkin' trash with fellow rich Republicans at a fundraiser last spring, released by Mother Jones last month, was devastating.
A good test of whether you're in the presence of a genuine gaffe is whether the speaker would take it back if he or she could. This raises the question: Why should more credence be given to words someone wishes he'd never uttered than to the many things he has no desire to retract?
The theory is that the gaffe is actually the voice of the politician's subconscious. But gaffes have become so ludicrously central to American politics that demand outstrips supply. So standards are low. Almost any statement that can be twisted into the shape of a gaffe will be.
At the same time, it's much harder today than it was just a few years ago for politicians to tell outright lies. Media organizations are already "fact-checking" the debate, even though it hasn't started, and they will have SWAT teams ready to expose Romney or President Obama should either of them dare to say 27% when the correct figure is 31%.
Where is the similar scrutiny of gaffes and alleged gaffes? We need official answers to questions like when has a politician committed a genuine gaffe and when is the accusation just demagoguery from the other side? If it's a real gaffe, how serious is it? Should the gaffing pol just shrug it off? Slit her wrists?
Some rulings will be easy. The prize for most spectacular gaffe of 2012, so far, clearly goes to Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Missouri, for his animadversions on women and rape. Akin's gaffe was too clinical to label as a slip of the tongue and too nutty to be called a lie. It reveals a kind of jaw-dropping ignorance.
Much more common is the stupid small lie that is also a gaffe because you inevitably get caught. Or the statement that is technically true but patently ridiculous.
These kinds of gaffes are a Romney specialty. He claimed to have been "a hunter pretty much all my life," and that "there were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip." Occasionally Romney has said things that are true, and not ridiculous, for which he has been ridiculed unfairly. I would put his heartfelt declaration that "corporations are people, my friend" in that category. Romney's point was that corporate profits don't disappear into the corporate maw but end up going to real people. Rich people, perhaps, but nevertheless real.
Truth is not always a defense, however. If you say something perfectly true — maybe even true and important or courageous — it's still a gaffe if you regret having said it. Surely Obama regrets having said "You didn't build that," which the Republicans then made so much of at their convention. All Obama meant was that every business depends to some extent on the government. To listen to Republicans, you would think he had endorsed "The Communist Manifesto." Nevertheless, it was a mistake to have said it.
It's too bad. Neither of the candidates is a terribly spontaneous guy. With the risk that one or two ill-chosen words can plunge you into gaffe hell, this year's presidential debates are likely to be more rehearsed and cautious than ever. In Gaffeland, the less said the better.
Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.