Reporter's Notebook

Gaffe Track
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Every presidential campaign is full of unpredictable twists and turns. After a brief moment where it looked like the nation might slouch into a Bush-Clinton rematch, the 2016 election is taking its place in that line of strange journeys. The one sure thing: There will be gaffes.

Knowing that the range of gaffes is wide, and that the import of a gaffe is often inflated (or overlooked) early on, Gaffe Track is The Atlantic’s bid to cover these gaffes with a consistent approach, creating a nearly real-time chronological inventory of the missteps, miscalculations, and misstatements of the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Gaffe Track: Don't Ask Jeb for Any 'Free Stuff,' Black Voters

Kevork Djansezian / AP

The candidate: Jeb Bush

The gaffe: At an event near Charleston, South Carolina, a man noted the mostly white crowd and asked Bush how he’d win over and include black voters. “Our message is one of hope and aspiration,” Bush said. “It isn’t one of division, and get in line, and we’ll take care of you with free stuff. Our message is one that is uplifting—that says you can achieve earned success."

The defense: In 2012, Mitt Romney said, “I hope people understand this, your friends who like Obamacare, you remind them of this, if they want more stuff from government tell them to go vote for the other guy—more free stuff.” After the election, he said, “The president’s campaign focused on giving targeted groups a big gift.” At least Bush acknowledges there’s another way to win black voters.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Even with that slight improvement, this isn’t good. (There’s a reason Romney’s comments were widely decried, including by Republicans.) First, it tells black voters that the patrician Bush thinks they vote Democrat mostly for giveaways, which is a bit insulting. Second, and more importantly, it reinforces a false idea that whites don’t receive federal-assistance “gifts”—a majority do. Third, it ignores the fact that tax cuts for high-earners, like the ones Bush has proposed, are very much “free stuff.” It turns out voters of all stripes like gifts!

The moral: It’s always better to give than receive, but it is essential to give if you wish to receive votes.

John Minchillo / AP

The candidate: Ben Carson

The gaffe: Asked by a radio interviewer whether he’d consider running as an independent, the Republican candidate seemed open. “If I had to, I would, but I don’t think it’s necessary,” Carson said, three times offering similar answers. The fourth, he insisted, “No, I didn’t say that at all. That’s not what I’m saying.” But Carson, like every other GOP candidate, has signed a pledge saying he wouldn’t run outside the party.

The defense: Look, no one believes those pledges are worth the paper on which they’re printed.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): In general, any candidate who can’t win a party’s nomination isn’t able to mount a serious third-party challenge anyway. (Sorry, John Anderson.) The weird exchange does speak to Carson’s occasional lack of verbal discipline, which has led him to awkward and strange statements before.

The moral: The loyalty pledge was intended to ensnare Trump, but what’s good for the goof isn’t necessarily good for the panderers.

Charlie Neibergall / AP

The candidate: Ben Carson

The gaffe: Speaking to Marketplace, Carson revealed that he has no idea how the debt limit—a ceiling not on how much the government spends, but on whether it can borrow to pay off existing debts—functions. “Should the Congress then and the president not raise the debt limit? Should we default on our debt?” Kai Ryssdal asked. Carson replied: “Let me put it this way: if I were the president, I would not sign an increased budget. Absolutely would not do it. They would have to find a place to cut.” Ryssdal tried repeatedly to refocus Carson from spending to the debt limit, and Carson clearly didn’t understand the difference.

The defense: Carson is wrong, but he’s not alone. Most Americans don’t understand the debt ceiling. Moreover, while many Republicans saw brinksmanship on the debt limit as leverage against President Obama, others seemed to sincerely and incorrectly believe the nation wouldn’t default if it wasn’t raised—including Carson’s Republican rival Rand Paul.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): The president of the United States needs to understand the difference between the debt ceiling and the budget.

The moral: This stuff is a little complicated, but it ain’t brain surgery.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

The candidate: Ben Carson. Welcome back, doctor!

The gaffe: On CNN Thursday, Carson was asked about a passage in his book A More Perfect Union suggesting that gun regulation during 1930s Germany meant Jews couldn’t resist the Nazis. The Republican candidate didn’t flinch: “I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed. There’s a reason these dictatorial people take the guns first.”

The defense: What Carson is saying here may be new to many viewers, but it’s an idea with a long history in conservative media. (Here’s a version from National Review, for example.) Many on the right argue that a better armed populace might have resisted the Nazis.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Understandably, many people find this argument offensive, in part because it implies Jews didn’t do enough to defend themselves. Moreover, experts from historians to the Anti-Defamation League have rejected the idea as factually baseless. The gaffe also cements Carson’s penchant for poorly considered remarks—comparing the U.S. to Nazi Germany elsewhere, or likening ISIS to the Founding Fathers.

The moral: You know who else misinterpreted history to further his ideological goals?

Stephen Lam / Reuters

The candidate: Ben Carson. Third time today, doctor!

The gaffe: Here’s the candidate, speaking about the Umpqua Community College massacre on Fox News on Tuesday: “I would not just stand there and let him shoot me. I would say: ‘Hey, guys, everybody attack him! He may shoot me, but he can’t get us all.’”

The defense: Who even knows? At least one person at the college did try to stop the shooter. Carson’s answer on Wednesday was to double down on his argument: “I said what I would do. ... I would ask everyone to attack the gunman …. [I] “never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” On Thursday, he started talking about Nazis.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): There’s a large bloc of voters who think the answer to the UCC massacre is more gun control. There’s a large bloc that thinks the answer is more armed “good guys.” But who believes that the answer is to blame the victims? One survivor told CNN: “I’m fairly upset he said that. Nobody could truly understand what actions they would take like that in a situation unless they lived it.”

The moral: When you shoot from the hip, sometimes you hit yourself in the foot.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

The candidate: John Kasich

The gaffe: At a town hall at the University of Richmond, Kasich responded to a student waving her hand to ask a question—about border security, it turned out—by cracking, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any Taylor Swift concert tickets.” It turns out she works for the campus paper, The Collegian, where she wrote a scathing column: “I didn’t go to a town hall forum for Taylor Swift tickets, Gov. Kasich. I went because it's my civic duty to be an informed voter. Please start treating me like one.” Weirdly, he also told another female student, “I’m sure you get invited to all of the parties.”

The defense: John Kasich loves Linkin Park and hates the Roots, so maybe no one should take his comments about music too seriously.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Kasich has positioned himself as a bold truthteller, willing to tell the Republican base what it doesn’t want to hear. But that’s a risky strategy, and gratuitously alienating other important voter demos—young people, Taylor Swift fans—makes it riskier.

The moral: Dear John, I see it all now that you’re gone. Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with?

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton.

The gaffe: Asked to name the enemy she was most proud of late in Tuesday’s Democratic debate, Clinton answered: “Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians—[pausing for laughter]—probably the Republicans.” As Charles Cooke explains, declaring the entire opposition party your enemy makes it tough to run as a uniter.

The defense: Hey, who are we kidding? The line was played for laughs, but she’s probably being honest. She and many Republicans do probably consider each other enemies.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): It’s probably not bad politics in the Democratic primary. All night, Clinton tried to turn the conversation away from disagreements within the party and toward the broader difference with the GOP. But it could be used against her in a general election.

The moral: Don’t be your own worst enemy.

The candidate: Jeb Bush

The gaffe: At a forum in Las Vegas (hosted by the Koch brothers-affiliated Libre Initiative, no less), he was asked who his favorite superhero was. (The question stipulated Marvel.) After mentioning Batman, he added: “I saw that Supergirl is on TV. I saw it when I was working out this morning. There’s an ad promoting Supergirl. She looked kind of—she looked pretty hot.”

The defense: Some people agree that Supergirl is, in fact, pretty hot.

Why it matters: For one, awkwaaaaard. For another, the question asked for Marvel characters, and Bush named two DC Comics characters—Batman and Supergirl. (And Bush says DC isn’t in his D.N.A.!) It’s neither easy nor wise to alienate female and nerd voters in one fell swoop.

The moral: There are much better ways to debunk the “war on women.”

Scott Morgan / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Trump retweeted the following after a poll showed him slipping to second in the first caucus state: “@mygreenhippo #BenCarson is now leading in the #polls in #Iowa. Too much#Monsanto in the #corn creates issues in the brain? #Trump #GOP.”

The defense: Trump claims an intern was responsible:

Maybe. But perhaps the intern’s name is Donald J. Trump. Trump has said he sometimes dictates tweets and sometimes does it himself—something reporters have witnessed—and this isn’t far off from other stuff he’s tweeted.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): It’s not a good idea to insult Iowa voters if you wish to win their vote. It’s also not a great idea to insult a company whose stock you own.

The moral: Never tweet.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The candidate: Horatio Alger Donald Trump

The gaffe: You might think Trump, as the son of a multimillionaire real-estate developer, might have had some advantages in life—education, knowledge, entree into the real-estate world. You would be wrong, Trump said on Today, today: “It has not been easy for me ... My father gave me a small loan of a million dollars.”

The defense: Trump’s argument is that his father was an outer-borough guy, and he had to break into Manhattan. (That distinction should play in Peoria.)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Mitt Romney, whom Trump likes to mock, was widely mocked for even suggesting in 2012 that ordinary people might do this: “Take a shot, go for it, take a risk, get the education, borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.”

The moral: If your dad cut you a check that big, your privilege needs one, too.

Brendan McDermid / Reuters

The candidate: Chris Christie

The gaffe: The New Jersey governor committed a cardinal sin on Sunday: He spoke in the quiet car. Gawker, which, uh, scooped the story, reported Christie was yelling; his spokesman and other accounts said he was merely chatting on a cell phone. (To be fair, Christie is not known for speaking at low volumes.)

The defense: “The governor promptly left once he realized the serious nature of his mistake and enjoyed the rest of his time on the train from the cafe car,” his spokeswoman said in a statement. “Sincere apologies to all the patrons of the quiet car that were offended.”

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Christie just lost the crucial Acela Corridor frequent-rider vote. Also, dude, learn from Lanny Davis’s mistakes.

The moral: It’s better to talk in the quiet car and remind people you’re running for president than keep mum and have them forget.

Mike Stone / Reuters

The candidate: Jeb Bush, scion of the nation’s ancien regime.

The gaffe: During last week’s Republican debate, Bush tried to pile on to Marco Rubio for missing votes during his day job. “The Senate, what is it like a French work week? You get like three days where you have to show up?” Au contraire, scolded the French ambassador, who noted that France has a longer average work week than the Germans. Désolé, Bush said Tuesday, apologizing.

The defense: Zut alors! Who doesn’t love to bash the French?

Why it matters (or doesn’t): What better microcosm of Bush’s campaign manqué is there? He tries to attack a rival, gets steamrolled by the rival in the contretemps, and finally ends up apologizing to the butt of his joke. It’s a double own-goal—and his misunderstanding of continental labor is all the more embarrassing since Bush likes to present himself as the only bien-pensant foreign-policy candidate in the GOP field.

The moral: When your bon mot is so déclassé that you end up surrendering to the French, your campaign is truly not the crème de la crème.