Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate, had just dropped off a spray of flowers on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, the last step of his European tour that started with a gaffe, another one. Barely arrived in London, the former Massachusetts governor had cut his hosts to the quick by insulting the organization of the 2012 Olympic Games. When he passed by reporters after the Polish ceremony, he carefully ignored their questions. But one of them went down in history: "What about your gaffes?"
It is common knowledge: political reporters are obsessed by gaffes, especially if they occur during a presidential race. And the candidates' teams do not miss any, hoping they can be used to caricature the opponent. In 2012 Romney – him again – was the gift that kept on giving. His gaffe on the "47%" of electors who would support Barack Obama unconditionally because they "pay no income tax" played a part in his defeat.
But not all gaffes have the same impact. As the campaign of the "Lamborghini of gaffes” – the nickname given last week to Joe Biden by a Washington Post journalist – is about to start, it is worth reviewing the question. With this aim in mind, La Presse requested the help of an expert on the subject, Stephen Frantzich, retired political commentator from the Annapolis Naval Academy and author of approximately 20 books, including “O.O.P.S. : Observing Our Politicians Stumble.”
The "O.O.P.S." title is not just an acronym. It also reminds us of another memorable gaffe. At a televised debate, when he was prompted to restate the three Cabinet departments he was planning to eliminate if elected president in 2012, Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry could only name two: the Department of Commerce and the Department of Education. After several long seconds, he ended the torture by saying, "Oops!"
He is now in charge of the third department he was planning to get rid of: the Department of Energy.
3 Categories of Gaffes
Rick Perry's "Oops!" falls into the third category defined by Frantzich.
"It is a gaffe showing intellectual incapacity, and that a candidate is not up to the task of president. We see it when the candidate is confused on historical questions or does not remember the name of agencies he promises to eliminate," explains the political commentator during a phone interview.
The first category is just simple mistakes. A candidate mistakes the date or a city for another one; for instance, he says he is happy to be in Indianapolis when he actually is in Minneapolis. Or when he brags about campaigning in the 57 American states, as Obama once said.
"Simple mistakes are usually forgiven," says Frantzich.
It is quite a different story for the second category of gaffes as defined by the political commentator, the one showing a "moral defect."
"It happens when a candidate fails to meet the general public's expectations. Lying, getting caught in a lie, that's what I call a moral defect. Openly defying the fundamental values of our society, making racist statements or jokes, all those fall into this category, which I think is the most dangerous," Frantzich says.
Donald Trump's name immediately comes to mind in relation to this category. But first, let's see how Biden, the Democrats’ poll favorite in the 2020 presidential race, fits into this. These days, his many gaffes captivate reporters and worry some Democratic voters.
From "Oops!" to "Phew!"
We can put several of the former vice president’s gaffes in the "simple mistakes" category.
"What is not to like about Vermont?" he asked at a gathering in New Hampshire.
"Poor kids are just as bright as white kids," he said in Iowa, correcting himself later, saying that he meant to say poor kids are just as bright as "rich" kids.
He offered sympathy for the shootings in Houston and Michigan when referring to the killings in El Paso and Ohio. He confused Theresa May for Margaret Thatcher.
"We believe in truth over facts," he said, again in Iowa.
These "simple mistakes" are only a glimpse of the gaffes Biden makes. That they have accumulated raises a question related to another category of gaffes defined by professor Frantzich regarding "intellectual incapacity." Will the 78-year-old former right-hand man to Obama still be up to the task of president?
Another concern is Biden’s tendency to be quite flippant about facts. As an example of this, he repeatedly told a story of military bravery, and mixed up places, times and people, as reported recently by The Washington Post.
However, Biden can somewhat reassure himself. After all, in 2016, Americans elected a candidate whose gaffes revealed a "moral defect" as high as the Empire State Building.
"I think the influence of gaffes often depends on expectations,” says Frantzich. “To many Americans, Donald Trump was a shady character who probably took liberties with the truth. Therefore, expectations were not very high.
"And now, expectations could have been lowered more or less permanently, so that what would have been a fatal gaffe 20 years ago, might today not be such a big deal anymore."
In Biden's mouth, Perry's "Oops!" may well become a "Phew!"