Dar-Wei Chen: The Type 3 gaffe

By Dar-Wei Chen, Daily Opinion Columnist
Published November 14, 2011

In the modern American news media’s coverage of politics, every event needs a narrative so that people keep watching. Whenever a candidate for an office says or does something, pundits across the country rush to label what happened or outline the ramifications of said event. One of these labels is called the “gaffe.”

For political purposes, gaffes can assume a few forms. Sometimes a politician will accidentally say something that doesn’t accurately portray what he or she actually thinks. One example of this form is Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s latest statement about the sexual misconduct allegations coming from various women he’s worked with: “For every one person that comes forward with a false accusation, there are probably thousands who will say that none of that sort of activity ever came from Herman Cain.” Many comedians and liberal analysts are having field days with this quote because it seems to imply that Cain is using the “I’ve only groped a few women” defense, but I will defend Cain here. What he probably meant was: The vast majority of people who know Cain would say that he’s not capable of such misconduct.

Other times, a politician says something he clearly believes, but states it in such an awkward manner that the candidate’s clumsiness overshadows the message. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum has become famous for one particular incident where he had one of these gaffes. On a campaign stop in Iowa earlier this summer, Santorum pointed to a napkin on a table and stated, “This is a napkin — I can call this napkin a paper towel, but it is a napkin,” making the case that gay marriage is actual marriage to the same extent that napkins are paper towels. His main point is clear (gay marriages are not legitimate), but the news media covered this episode as a gaffe because the analogy was such a strange one.

The funny thing about this year’s GOP presidential nomination process is the invention of a new type of gaffe (let’s call these “Type 3 gaffes”). Type 3 gaffes happen when politicians clearly and sensibly delineate what they believe, but receive backlash because their opinions run counter to all credible research or mainstream public opinion. During the summer campaign season, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry talked to a young boy in Iowa about how “evolution is a theory that's out there … it's got some gaps,” and with respect to the evolution-creationism debate, “You're smart enough to figure out which one is right.” Some media members pounced on these quotes, tagging them as gaffes from Perry (Type 3), even though few in Republican circles believe in evolution to begin with.

I cannot bring myself to accept this incident as a mere gaffe. To me, a gaffe involves a mistake. Remember what happened in the GOP debate last week when Perry couldn’t name the third government agency he’d eliminate? That’s a gaffe because his memory lapsed, and he couldn’t locate his notes (and it’s inconsequential because he’ll have his notes if he becomes president of the United States). On the other hand, what Perry said on evolution is what he meant exactly. The media does everyone a disservice by using the gaffe label because what Perry says will have very real consequences if he wins the presidency.

GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney also had a Type 3 gaffe this summer when he infamously said “corporations are people.” With citizens struggling across the country and corporations earning record profits, many people took offense because corporations cannot be treated like people, especially with the economy in bad shape. This quote was labeled a gaffe by many in the media, but Romney honestly meant what he said and how he said it.

When the media calls something a gaffe, they seem to imply that there was something inadvertent about it. The “gaffe” label also too easily sweeps nonsensical statements under the rug when substantive policy discussions arise. Nothing was inadvertent about Perry’s statements on evolution and Romney’s statements on corporate personhood. These Type 3 “gaffes” have serious consequences, such as teaching schoolchildren pseudoscience or allocating the country's resources inefficiently. Sure, President Barack Obama has once said that he’s visited 57 states (Perry supporters are happy to tell you about this), but unless he’s going to waste federal money on imaginary states, his gaffe will have no tangible consequences. I don’t know what to call them, but maybe Type 3 gaffes should be named something else that reflects how terrifying they are. Maybe “unfiltered looks at Perry and Romney” will do.

Dar-Wei Chen can be reached at chendw@umich.edu.