early and awkward

A Taxonomy of Gaffes

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In a world where every misstep by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney produces a veritable feeding frenzy online (guilty!) and on TV, gaffes have come to occupy a more central place in America’s death-race to the White House than ever before. With not a lot else going on in the campaign, gaffes and their reverberating repercussions have taken on an especially prominent role in campaign coverage over the past few weeks, and until Twitter and YouTube cease to exist, each one will continue to be scrutinized more closely than a slow-motion video of Kate Upton doing the Cat Daddy. Not all gaffes are equal, though. Nearly three decades since The New Republic’s Michael Kinsley famously defined a gaffe as when a politician accidentally tells the truth, the vast majority of gaffes will now fall into a handful of distinct gaffe categories. 

They are:

The Glaring Factual Error Gaffe

Examples include Obama recently referring to Mitt as "George," and the Romney campaign's misspelling all of the most important words in the English language. While these are embarrassing for about two minutes, they will only influence the most persnickety of voters, and who even wants their support anyway?

The Out-of-Context Gaffe

Unlike Normal People, politicians must be careful to never utter any string of words that might sound bad when removed from the thoughts that immediately preceded and followed them. One famous example from this campaign is Romney's "I like being able to fire people" remark. These might be thrown into an attack ad at some point, but their damage is limited because most media outlets won't treat them as some kind of heinous offense.

Andy Kropa/Getty

The Kinsley Gaffe

As we mentioned above, a Kinsley gaffe is defined as when a politician accidentally tells the truth. Think Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom announcing that Romney would, like an Etch A Sketch, wipe from his slate the far-right positions he'd taken during the GOP primary campaign. Which is something that all presidential candidates do to some degree, and something we all expected of Romney. But you're not supposed to admit it, out loud, in public. Some respect for the charade, please!

The Hot Mike Gaffe

A sort of corollary to the Kinsley Gaffe, this is when someone accidentally reveals something true on a hot mike, as when Obama told Dmitri Medvedev that he would have more flexibility on missile defense after the election. The fact that we were eavesdropping in on something we weren't supposed to hear lent a sheen of scandal to what was, really, a pretty innocuous remark.

The Undisciplined Surrogate Gaffe

For some reason, we've come to expect that everyone who supports Obama to be perfect Obamabots who agree with him on every single issue. So when Cory Booker and Bill Clinton recently revealed that they actually kind of admire Romney's business career, the world considered those to be "gaffes." Unless every Democrat in the world feels this way, it can't be true!

The Narrative Gaffe

In a vacuum, there's nothing wrong with Mitt Romney acknowledging that his wife "drives a couple of Cadillacs" and that he has friends who are NASCAR team owners. But those remarks, and a million more like them, feed into the Obama campaign's caricature of Romney as an out-of-touch gazillionaire. Likewise, when Obama stated, a little too casually, that the "private sector is doing fine" in comparison to the public sector, it bolstered Romney's claim that Obama just doesn't understand the economy. Because these gaffes play into a preexisting narrative, they're hard to ever shake, and therefore are the most damaging of all the gaffes.