The 2012 presidential campaign has witnessed the full flowering of the faux gaffe, in which a candidate is skewered, generally out of context, for saying something that he clearly did not mean but that the other side finds immensely useful to misrepresent. Mitt Romney's "I like being able to fire people" and "I'm not concerned about the very poor" fall into this category. So do Barack Obama's "the private sector is doing fine" and "you didn't build that."
It would be dreamily naïve to moan that politics, once about high-minded ideas and detailed policy platforms, has now deteriorated into gaffe-sploitation. Candidates' missteps have always mattered; e.g., George Romney on his Vietnam brainwashing or Gerald Ford's debate flub denying any Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
But the 2012 campaign, more than any I can recall, feels like all gaffe, all the time. The curve for what counts as a gaffe has been dramatically lowered. Meanwhile, attention to the most minor of gaffes has been enhanced to deafening levels, drowning out, or at least taking the place of, other discussion.
There are several interlocking explanations for this development:
The 24/7 news cycle and the constant need for fresh nuggets of supposed news to toss out.
The ubiquity and intrusiveness of technology -- cellphones and cameras yielding multiple "Macaca" moments -- combined with the hyper-connected capacity for instantaneous dissemination.
Intellectual laziness (how much easier to critique a candidate's gaffe than to dissect his tax plan) on the part of the press corps.
Policy voids (wait, these candidates don't actually have tax plans!) on the part of the campaigns.
Should gaffes matter? Do they? Yes, but with reservations. Gaffes can expose candidates' factual ignorance or intellectual shortcomings (see you later, Rick Perry and Herman Cain). Gaffes can reveal candidates' characterological failures as well -- a tendency to self-important puffery, undisciplined bloviating, or politically convenient shape-shifting. Indeed, the more the gaffe, real or imagined, reinforces the pre-existing image of the candidate, the greater damage it will inflict. Ask Dan Quayle about spelling "potatoe."
So there is a legitimate place for gaffe coverage — in perspective. Take Romney's not-so-excellent European vacation. His mildly derisive comment about preparations for the London Olympics was dumb, even if it fit the classic Kinsleyian definition of gaffe as a politician saying something truthful in public. But unless the United Kingdom has previously unknown electoral votes, this episode seems destined to be much-noted but not long remembered.
Add in Romney's Israel comments, though — that Israeli "culture" may help explain differences in "economic vitality" between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — and you do have to wonder about Romney's consistent ham-handedness. How many foreign leaders can you annoy on one trip? Imagine what Republicans would have done if Obama had been similarly clumsy in the course of his foreign trip during the 2008 campaign.
So I'm not against gaffe coverage — I'm against covering only gaffes, which is where campaign reporting seems to be trending. I'm not against politicians' seizing on opponents' gaffes — I'm against politicians who believe, or act as if they believe, that this tactic can substitute for substantive campaign discussion.
There is a dangerous mismatch between the seriousness of the moment and this too-often-dominant form of political discourse. Americans like to think we choose presidents on the basis of who has the best vision for leading the country. We are at risk of electing the candidate least apt to make a clumsy remark.