vision 2020

Has Trump Rendered the Political Gaffe Obsolete?

What, me misspeak? Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Intelligencer writers Ed Kilgore, Benjamin Hart, and Margaret Hartmann discuss whether campaign-trail slipups still matter in 2019.

Ben: The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer tweeted the following this week: “I don’t know if this is true but I wonder if Trump has so inured the public to verbal gaffes that Biden’s weaknesses in that area are neutralized in a way they wouldn’t be against a traditional candidate. Trump says like five things every day worse than the typical Bidenism.”

This gets at something I think a lot of people have been wondering: Has President Trump’s ascent rendered a lot of candidate behavior that would have once been deemed problematic as forgivable, or maybe not even newsworthy anymore? What has become of the political “gaffe”?

Margaret: In preparation for this chat, I looked up some of Biden’s alleged gaffes.

Ben: I appreciate your research commitment.

Margaret: Most range from “meh” to kind of endearing when viewed through Trump-weary eyes. What is asking a paraplegic state senator to stand up so everyone can applaud him — and quickly realizing the error — when you have Trump’s infamous mocking of a disabled reporter? So yeah, I think a lot of these things aren’t even going to register. But as we saw with Hillary’s “deplorables” remark, if just one line catches on, it can make a dent. That was even true of Obama. The theme of the 2012 Republican National Convention was “You didn’t build that,” which was a distortion of the point Obama was making.

Ed: There’s definitely some truth in what Serwer is saying, if only because Trump creates the crucial context for everything in U.S. politics right now. But I think we need to qualify the “Nobody cares what Trump says” planted axiom here. Democrats and both liberal media and the mainstream media endlessly document and talk about Trump’s lies, excesses, high crimes and misdemeanors, etc., etc. It’s Trump supporters who don’t care, because for the most part they view him as a scourge for lashing their hated enemies. Every time he says or does something outrageous, he’s “owning the libs,” not breaking time-honored norms.

At the moment, though, the main context for judging Joe Biden is the Democratic presidential nominating contest, and Democrats have not abandoned the old norms. So Biden’s gaffes may bug them now, even though they’d stop caring in a general-election contest with Trump.

Margaret: That’s true, though I do think Democrats have limited capacity for being outraged, or it’s hard to get all Democrats to be outraged on the same point, unless we’re talking Trump.

Ben: Right now, the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination — Biden — is someone well known for (among other things) getting off message, committing verbal miscues, and generally being undisciplined on the campaign trail. In 2008, he called Obama “clean” and “articulate” on the first day of his campaign, a remark that I think would land with even more of a thud today. But as Ed pointed out, they may view things through an “Okay, it’s not perfect, but the guy can beat Trump” lens in a way that contrasts with previous election cycles.

Margaret: I’m sure people who already aren’t big Biden fans are going to latch onto any gaffes, but he already survived the unwanted-touching issue. I think there’s the mystique around him, that he’s the guy who might be able to beat Trump so we can’t care about these comments that might have bothered us a few years ago. It takes a gaffe machine to fight a gaffe machine.

Ed: I dunno, Ben, some of the heartburn over Biden as a gaffe machine involves the fear that it will keep him from beating Trump.

Margaret: I think in some ways — depending on the gaffe — they could be an asset. A minor slipup make him look fun and reinforces the avuncular image. But if he makes a few racial remarks, I think that could be a real problem. For instance, I had never heard this one from the Time list: “In 2006, Biden commented on the growing population of Indian Americans in Delaware. ‘You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking,’ he told a voter.”

Ben: One issue here is that the definition of “gaffe” is slippery. The stuff we’re talking about runs the gamut from “potentially lovable slipup” to “insulting the voters you’re trying to win over.”

Ed: I’m going to go all Big Picture here and suggest that part of the reason this stuff may not matter as much in 2020 is that the general election will be about big, consequential differences between the parties. I was talking to Margaret earlier today about Trump supporters who don’t care he’s a crook because they think he will help them end the American Holocaust of legalized abortion.

Margaret: I think the harmless slipups won’t even register anymore. We have a president who regularly mispronounces and misspells words to the point that people wonder about his health.

Ed: Democrats could develop the same high tolerance for relatively inconsequential mistakes. That’s different, however, than Biden’s actual record on actual issues.

Margaret: That’s interesting. My initial thought was that Democrats won’t develop that same high tolerance.

Ed: Not sure they will in the primary season, but by the general election, sure.

Margaret: I think they’re still holding candidates to a high standard, and we’re diving into what may be a very nasty 25(?)-way contest.

Ed: But again, that’s an intramural competition, not one against Trump.

Margaret: It’ll be interesting to see if, after the primary, they can actually pull back together to take on Trump, which they didn’t really in 2016, in my view.

Ed: Well, I’ve been saying and writing for a while that Democrats’ hidden weapon in 2020 is that nobody’s ever going to get complacent or assume their candidate has it in the bag.

Ben: Okay, so let’s say there’s less focus among media and voters this time around on small-ball verbal miscues. (I’m not convinced this will actually happen.) Wouldn’t that be a good thing? Perhaps a rare salutary side effect of Trump’s domination of a political party?

Margaret: I’ll say yes, good thing. We’re living in Idiocracy, I don’t really care if a politician is caught saying “big fucking deal” on a hot mic. Everyone acting scandalized by comments like that was probably always a bit unnecessary. (Like in my dreams is the president an eloquent speaker respected on the world stage? Sure, but I now have bigger concerns.)

Ed: Makes me recall Fred Harris, who actually ran for president in the ’70s on the slogan “No More Bullshit.” Media took it upon themselves to report that as “No More Hogwash.”

’70s media would have reported Biden as saying “Darn tootin’ it’s important!”

Margaret: Haha.

If a president just does not know how to speak respectfully about all constituents, that is a problem.

Ben: I do think Biden’s mistakes are likely to go beyond the lovable. But these things are also about the gap between the image the candidate presents and reality. That may be why Trump can get away with so much, at least with people who don’t despise him — he doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. Whereas when Marco Rubio drinks a bottle of water awkwardly, it’s excruciating.

Margaret: Right, I think Biden has that quality too — authenticity, if you will — where some gaffes are tolerated because that’s just who he is.

Ed: In Trump’s case: You can’t lose dignity you never had.

Has Trump Rendered the Political Gaffe Obsolete?