Gaffe factory: Why Romney keeps talking about Obama’s ‘bumps in the road’

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Obama on '60 Minutes.' ()
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Blake Zeff

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You really can’t blame the Romney campaign for trying to hype President Obama’s "bumps in the road" comments on "60 Minutes" into a game-changing “controversy.” 

They're just playing the gaffe game, an attritional contest in which the opposing candidate's misstatements, light offenses or unplanned departures from usual talking points are elevated into campaign-paralyzing "controversies."

There's little motivation for the campaigns not to give it a try—no one's giving out yellow cards for diving.

The worst case is the campaign's complaints get ignored. The best case is reporters amplify the complaint, and it spreads beyond the Twitter echo chamber, and then the other team has to spend time and resources to address it. Occasionally, after a while, voters might even notice.

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Gaffe-level offenses comes in several varities:

1) “Insulting”: A classic of the genre, this is the comment that purportedly insults the opposing candidate personally, like when Joe Biden over-excitedly said Romney’s plans would put voters “back in chains.”

Was Biden calling Romney a racist? A slave owner? Whatever the insinuation, Romney was very offended! Torn up inside. Could barely keep going.  

It should be noted that it's kind of difficult to get voters worked up about this kind of "gaffe," since they are generally of the opinion that if you throw your hat in the ring you get what's coming to you. The trick, then, is to take the comment and try to extend it to represent a larger set of aggrieved persons, beyond just the candidate. 

For example, when Hilary Rosen, a Democratic consultant, said that Ann Romney had never worked a day in her life, this wasn’t just an affront to Mrs. Romney, but, in the Romney campaign’s telling, to all stay-at-home moms. Suddenly the president's campaign found itself distancing itself from a person who wasn't speaking for him and explaining that in fact Obama had nothing but respect for devoted mothers and people who love them.

2) “Just as Bad as We Thought”: This is the statement or nugget that affirms every terrible notion about the opponent they’ve been trying to reinforce. So when Romney, whom the Obama campaign has been describing as the Monopoly Man for two years, said he likes to fire people, it was a gift they could never have anticipated.  

The fact that Romney was talking not about his approach to business or his time at Bain, but his faith in the free market when it comes to health insurance, didn't matter. Nor did the full context of a quote (“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn't give me a good service that I need, I want to say, 'I'm going to go get someone else to provide that service to me'"). He was an unfeeling layoff-bot, by his own admission, and that was that.

In a similar vein, there was Obama's comment about not being able "to change Washington from the inside." Romney (who said the same thing about Washington in the past) presented it as evidence that the president had given up on accomplishing anything.

In context, of course, Obama was talking about mobilizing people outside Washington to drive an agenda. And anyway, even if Obama had given up, would he really be admitting it in public? It would be about as suicidal as, well, Romney saying he likes to fire people, and meaning it.

3) “Don't Care About Those in Harm's Way”: These gaffes are usually statements that provide opportunities for outrage on behalf of “the troops,” but can include any cavalier-sounding observations about situations in which lives have been risked or lost. 

The Romney campaign executed this maneuver after Obama's "60 Minutes" interview, in which the president said that geopolitical developments in the Middle East included “bumps in the road.”

“I can’t imagine saying something like the assassination of ambassadors is a bump in the road, when you look at the entire context, the assassination, the Muslim Brotherhood president being elected in Egypt, 20,000 people killed in Syria, Iran close to becoming a nuclear nation," Romney said.

Obama didn't actually refer to any of those things, of course. But the White House press secretary subsequently had to explain that the president wasn't thinking of them when he talked about "bumps."

4) “Out of Touch”: When an opponent’s words can be interpreted as insulting large portions of the electorate, it’s champagne day in the war room. Of course, even the most maladroit candidates know to avoid this one in public. God bless the hidden camera.  

The beauty of these "gaffes" is that they aren’t even stretches. When behind closed doors at fund-raisers with rich people, politicians sometimes feel at liberty to say offensive things. Yes, Mitt Romney really did call 47 percent of the country moochers who he won't waste his time trying to appeal to. And yes, Barack Obama did tell wealthy San Franciscans that people in other parts of the country get bitter and cling to guns and religion.

5) "Those People": These are classic ethnic controversies. Last night on "60 Minutes," Obama said that when it comes to Americans’ national security, he will “do what’s right for the American people” and block out any noise that’s out there.” So he hates Israel. Don’t follow? I’m not sure the Romney campaign does either, but if you talk about the world and don’t praise Israel, you only have yourself to blame.  

During the 2008 primary, when I worked for Hillary Clinton, the Obama campaign circulated a list of questions for reporters to ask regarding Bill Clinton’s business practices. (The president would later refer to the document as a “hit job” on him.) Reporters, to our consternation, couldn't have cared less about the insult to the last Democratic president.  

But it was the second page of the document that would become temporarily famous. It referred to Senator Clinton’s alleged connections to India, dubbing her “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab).” Obama had to reassure his Indian-American supporters that it was a mistake, and vowed thereafter to reform his internal campaign procedures to make sure such egregious offenses would never occur again.    

6) "Telling": Once in a blue moon, a candidate will say something that causes a firestorm, because the statement actually seems to indicate something meaningful to voters about how the candidate might perform as president.  

Romney's recent response to the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya in which four U.S. officials were murdered was wrong on the merits, and in timing and tone. The fact that he could have waited and actually asked real questions about the president's handling of the situation has only made it clearer in retrospect that his instincts, in a pinch, were way off.

Of course, almost none of these "gaffes," individually, turn out to be as important as they're made out to be at the time. Most often there's very little to them at all, and they take awkward flight simply because some critical number of journalists and pundits are too credulous or bored to worry about whether they're being used, or whether they're providing any value by RTing. They've got nothing much to lose when the incidents in questions turn out to be duds, other than a bit of everyone's time.

Cumulatively, though, these little tempests can have an effect. Ask anyone who's run for president and lost.

Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and a former aide to Chuck Schumer and Eric Schneiderman.