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.

Show 82 Newer Notes

Gaffe Track: The Jeb 'Gaffe' That Wasn't

David Becker / Reuters

The candidate: Jeb! Bush

The “gaffe”: Bush in Iowa, as reported by Talking Points Memo: “We should not have a multicultural society. When you create pockets of isolation, and in some cases, the assimilation process has been retarded, it’s wrong. It limits people’s aspirations.”

The defense: This isn’t a gaffe, no matter what Jeet Heer says. Some folks were upset that Bush had used “retarded,” a no-longer-favored term for developmental disabilities. But the context in which he used it was the most basic, literal sense of the word: “slowed.” (Zack Beauchamp explores this at more length and is right on.)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): It doesn’t matter a whit to Bush. But this is a cautionary tale for a press that is all too often eager to spot and make hay of candidates’ “gaffes.”

The moral: He who declares a gaffe first, gaffes worst.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The candidate: still Donald Trump.

The gaffe: At an event in Rochester, New Hampshire, a man said this to Trump: “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. You know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American …. Anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That’s my question: When can we get rid of them?” Trump answered, in typically non-specific fashion, “We’re going to be looking at that and plenty of other things,” but didn’t contradict the idea that President Obama, an American-born Christian, is a non-American Muslim, nor did he disagree that Muslims are a problem.

The defense: The campaign says Trump just meant he’d look into getting rid of the alleged camps, not Muslims. But it’s hard to give the benefit of the doubt to a guy who loudly demanded Obama’s birth certificate in 2011 and in July suggested he still harbors questions about the president’s nationality.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Declining to push back on these bigoted comments, and ratifying the birther premise, ought to be disqualifying. But everyone knows how previous “disqualifying” moments have hurt Trump: Not at all.

The moral: If the mountain won’t come to Muhammad, Muhammad should probably avoid the White Mountains.

Chris Tilley / Reuters

The candidate: Mike Huckabee

The gaffe: In explaining why he supports Kim Davis and rejects the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell, Huck reached way back: “The Dred Scott decision of 1857 still remains to this day the law of the land, which says that black people aren’t fully human. Does anybody still follow the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision?” Well, no—because it was overturned by the Fourteenth Amendment, in 1868.

The defense: Constitutional law is difficult, and the former Arkansas governor has struggled with it before—for example, advancing novel and nonsensical theories about how states could respond to the Supreme Court that echo historical “nullification” efforts.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): If you’re making a dubious states-rights-based claim, don’t cite the most infamous pro-slavery decision in American history.

The moral: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat foolish arguments about it during their presidential campaigns.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump. Again! I can’t believe it either!

The gaffe: A new Rolling Stone profile captures Trump watching Republican rival Carly Fiorina. “‘Look at that face!’ he cries. ‘Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!’ The laughter grows halting and faint behind him.” Yeesh.

The defense: “I’m talking about persona, I’m not talking about looks ... I say that about a lot of people—‘Look at that! That’s not going to be the president,’” Trump said. Which might be more convincing if he hadn’t followed his original comment by saying, “I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?” And if he didn’t have a history of misogynistic comments.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): By any normal political rules of gravity, this would haunt Trump. So far, the normal rules haven’t applied to him. So who knows?

The moral: Let he who is without orange skin cast the first stone.

(Rainier Ehrhardt / AP)

The candidate: Rick Perry

The gaffe: On Thursday, Donald Trump claimed Perry was about to leave the race. Fox News’ Gretchen Carlson asked if it was true. “A broken clock is right once a day, but the bottom line is I'm still here, I'm still working,” Perry replied. Not only does it suggest a misunderstanding of timepieces, it seems to (incorrectly) imply that Trump was correct. Oops.

The defense: Maybe Perry, an Air Force veteran, uses military time?

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This is all humor and no substance, and Trump is right that Perry’s campaign is foundering, so it’s largely irrelevant. But his hip new glasses aside, this otherwise minuscule miscue undermines Perry supporters’ claim that their man is sharper and more mentally prepared than he was in 2012.

The moral: When you’re getting your clock cleaned, there’s no time to waste with errors, no matter how minute.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

The candidate: Donald J. Trump

The gaffe: Speaking to the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Trump appeared to confuse the Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, with the Kurds, the minority group battling ISIS in northern Iraq. Trump played it off as a mishearing, but Hewitt noted, “On the front of Islamist terrorism, I’m looking for the next commander in chief to know who Hassan Nasrallah is, and Zawahri, and al-Julani, and al-Baghdadi. Do you know the players without a scorecard, yet, Donald Trump?” Trump’s reply: “No, you know, I’ll tell you honestly, I think by the time we get to office, they’ll all be changed. They’ll be all gone.”

The defense: Trump says he’s a businessman, not a foreign-policy expert. And hey, this stuff is complicated! On the other hand, Carly Fiorina handled similar questions from Hewitt without trouble.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): On the one hand, this makes Trump look a million other ephemeral Republican candidates who soared then crashed—I’m looking at you, Herman Cain and Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan. On the other, Trump’s appeal has never been built on his command of policy details, and it’s hard to imagine there are serious defense wonks who will suddenly abandon him. Trump’s attack on Hewitt as a “third-rate radio announcer” Friday morning will raise eyebrows—Hewitt’s a formidable questioner who’s moderating the next Republican debate. Then again, picking fights with moderators has worked for Trump before.

The moral: Bluster gets you a long way on the campaign trail, but it can’t do everything.