Jim covered Congress and The White House during the George W. Bush administration for The Washington Times, and worked as a reporter, editorial writer and columnist for newspapers in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and California. He has appeared on the Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, and many local and national talk radio shows to talk politics and policy.
Latest posts by Jim Lakely (see all)
Slate’s David Weigel, who covers “the right” for the left-leaning magazine has complied his list of the five biggest political gaffes of 2010 that weren’t really gaffes. Weigel’s piece runs in the tradition of the former editor of Slate, Michael Kinsley, who famously (and most accurately) defined a political gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth” by accident.
And, as an aside, this should be said: Weigel enlightens Slate’s readers about the happenings on the right side of the blogosphere without treating it like a strange tribe an explorer stumbled upon in a remote jungle somewhere. Weigel’s blog is well worth a bookmark or subscription on your RSS reader, and Slate’s lucky to have him.
But before we get to Weigel’s gaffes, I want to highlight his lead, which lays out well the forever-changed media landscape that the modern Internet wrought:
The 2010 midterms marked the final handover of political news judgment from the professionals to the amateurs and operatives. Consider: Four years ago, when then-Sen. George Allen of Virginia, then running for re-election, called a Democratic video tracker “Macaca,” you could not see the video on your phone. You couldn’t tweet it. It was largely up to news organizations whether they covered the video, which is why conservatives blamed the Washington Post for blowing it up into a scandal by covering every angle of the incident.
Isn’t that quaint? Now we find out about damaging gaffes and videos because people record them (or clip them from TV) and put them online, then spread the word through social media. Most of the “must-see videos” from the trail this year got that way because conservative or liberal blogs were obsessing over them and the rest of the media had to notice.
Yes. It’s an open and unanswerable question as to whether George Allen’s political career could have been destroyed, single-handedly, by an obsession of The Washington Post in 2010. The paper’s attempts to blow Bob McDonnell’s college writings into another “macaca” incident flopped. (He’s now governor of Virginia after winning by a landslide in 2009.) Anything that weakens the power of lefty, partisan organs like The Washington Post (which feign objectivity) is a good development for the media and democracy. And it’s only going to get worse for the MSM in the future.
OK. That bit of business out of the way, let’s get to Weigel’s Gaffes of the Year … that might not have been. Go to this link to see the videos for yourself, but here’s a summary of a few of them, and my comments:
1. Christine O’Donnell: “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?”
We all remember this one. Says Weigel:
Slate‘s Will Saletan adeptly explained why, on the merits of how the Constitution is currently interpreted, O’Donnell was wrong. She was wrong as a political strategist, too—you don’t win an election in Delaware by proving your social-conservative cred to an electorate that’s voted Democratic for president in every election since 1992. But this was a pander, not a flub.
The word “pander” connotes an assumption that O’Donnell didn’t really mean what she said. That’s not true. She believes it, and is right on the facts. Her point, in the context of the debate, was that the “Constitution as currently interpreted” by Supreme Court precedent has created a separation that goes beyond the bounds of what the founders intended when they wrote the First Amendment. There’s a lot of space — a liberal might use the word “nuance” — between the establishment of a state religion, which is what the founders’ language states, and the “wall of separation between church and state,” which is a quote in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Connecticut Baptists in 1802. The 20th century Supreme Court imposed Jefferson’s letter upon the Constitution. It’s not actually in the Constitution.
That said, Weigel sets himself apart as an analyst for a left-leaning publication by offering a cogent (as opposed to hysterical) evaluation of O’Donnell’s “flub.” On that point, he’s correct. Her statement, despite the truth of it, didn’t help her — though her campaign was likely doomed, anyway.
2. Nancy Pelosi: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”
As Weigel writes, “this was the phrase that launched a thousand campaign ads.” Indeed. He adds, though, that the famous quote “wasn’t actually what she was saying,” and he provides the full quote:
You’ve heard about the controversies within the bill, the process about the bill, one or the other. But I don’t know if you have heard that it is legislation for the future, not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America, where preventive care is not something that you have to pay a deductible for or out of pocket. Prevention, prevention, prevention—it’s about diet, not diabetes. It’s going to be very, very exciting. But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.
Let’s put aside the fact that Pelosi thinks it’s “very, very exciting” to believe in her fantastical and counter-economical version of government-run health care. Weigel gives, I think, a little too much leeway to Pelosi here. Sure, the full context of the quote shows that “Pelosi was trying to say that the press was only reporting he-said-she-saids about the bill, and that its benefits would become clear, and popular, once it passed.” But the truth of the matter is that Pelosi didn’t know what was in it. (And she didn’t care. Pelosi only cared about getting government’s hand on the throat of our health care system). Her audience didn’t know what was in it. And the American people still don’t know what’s in it, but are learning more with each passing week — and polls show that they hate it more now than when Pelosi spoke (as Weigel notes).
Members of Congress can’t be expected to know every possible policy ramification of the legislation they pass (though they should consider the possible negative effects of their policy decisions a reason to pause.) But they should damn well know the language and mandates of the the bill they are passing. By that accurate definition of Obamacare, Pelosi instituted a legislative abomination, and the gaffe of truth. She hardly deserves being let off the hook.
Last one. You need to read Weigel’s original post at Slate to see and read the rest.
3. Harry Reid: “Only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good.”
We all remember this one. Writes Weigel:
It was a little unfair. The Republicans’ point in attacking Reid was that he was settling for bad economic news, unconcerned about changing course to boost the economy. Reid’s point was that the economy was recovering. He was backed up by economists, who saw this in a constellation of numbers pointing to a 2010 recovery. They were wrong and Reid was wrong, but he wasn’t gloating or satisfied about job loss.
True enough on that last point. But that kind of clip just must be used in a campaign. It was Reid’s “Heck of a job, Brownie” moment. A bulls-eye too fat to ignore. Of course Reid wasn’t “satisfied” that “only 36,000 people lost their jobs today.” But, politics ain’t exactly fair. That was a gaffe-tastic way to suggest the economy was recovering — which is still an open question, by the way, as new hires continue to lag. As the “jobless recovery” continues, I have a feeling that quote will have legs in the campaign of 2012.