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 56 Newer Notes
Patrick Semansky / AP

The candidate: Ben Carson

The gaffe: Speaking to a fifth-grade class in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the good doctor asked, “Who’s the worst student?” Almost everyone pointed to the same child. Nothing like shaming a 10-year-old to put some pizzazz in a campaign event.

The defense: Carson likes to talk about how he felt like the dumbest kid in his class growing up. But this wasn’t a setup to make the dumbest kid feel smarter, it was just, well, dumb: “I figured people would be pointing around to all different people who they didn’t like,” he said later. The kid at least seemed pretty chill about it. “Knowing Seth, I think he’d take it in stride,” his mom said. “He’s very well-liked by all the students."

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This is a guy who’s obviously ready for the delicate diplomatic interactions required of a head of state. Seriously, who does this?

The moral: It takes serious smarts to go to Yale and become a decorated neurosurgeon, but there’s no emotional-intelligence requirement.

Jeb Bush receives a rifle at a 2003 NRA banquet. (Scott Audette / AP)

The candidate: Jeb Bush

The gaffe: As Andrew Kaczynski notes, Bush has boasted on multiple occasions that he won the NRA’s statesman of the year award, having received the honor from then-NRA President Charlton Heston. Small detail: The NRA does not, and never has, given out such an award. What a blunder(buss)!

The defense: “In recounting the story, Jeb was mistaken and conflated multiple events unintentionally,” a spokesman said. “Jeb has a lifetime A+ rating from the NRA.” The spokesman also noted that the NRA branded legislation Bush signed as Florida governor the “Six Pack of Freedom.” For the record: We recommend restraint when mixing six-packs and firearms. The campaign bit the bullet and removed social-media posts referring to the award.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Candidates (and news anchors) have, uh, taken flak for such misrememberings. Pundits and rivals may snipe at him, but does anyone really doubt Bush’s support for gun rights? He still has that A+ rating, plus the fancy ceremonial rifle in the photo above, which he received at a 2003 NRA banquet.

The moral: Jeb’s campaign is under the gun, but he still needs to keep his powder dry and avoid going off half-cocked.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The candidate: Jeb‽ Bush

The gaffe: Here’s the Republican speaking at an event in Lexington, South Carolina, on Wednesday, where he was introduced by State Senator Katrina Shealy.

When I was governor, in 16 months we had eight hurricanes and four tropical storms. One of them was called Katrina. I don’t know why your great state senator reminds me of a hurricane. But she does. She’s strong and she’s fierce, but she’s solving problems at the state capitol. You should be honored to have her as your elected official, I hope you agree with that. That should be your nickname. In the Bush family, we always give out nicknames. Yours is now Hurricane Katrina.

The defense: Shealy says her family also calls her that. Besides, as Bush family nicknames go, this isn’t the worst. (Sorry, Karl “Turd Blossom” Rove.)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Where to start? First, It’s generally impolite to liken a person to a natural disaster that killed 1,200 people. Second, Jeb Bush’s struggle to differentiate himself from his brother is no longer his biggest challenge—he’s got bigger ones now—but one questions the wisdom of jocularly reminding voters of an incident that became a metonym for his brother’s (or any president’s) mismanagement. Also, storms don’t generally solve problems in state capitols.

The moral: Leave the the woman-as-hurricane metaphors to Neil Young.

The candidate: Marco Rubio

The gaffe: Speaking to CBS News, the Republican blasted the omnibus spending bill. “I want these votes to start to matter again.” The only problem: As John Dickerson pointed out, Rubio skipped the vote. “In essence, not voting for it is a vote against it,” Rubio said.

The defense: He certainly didn’t vote for it! Rubio’s vote wouldn’t have flipped the result anyway.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Earlier in the campaign, Rubio KO’d attacks on his missed votes with a brutal shutdown of Jeb Bush. But his tongue-tied answer—which belongs in the awkward quote hall of fame along with “We had to destroy the village in order to save it” and “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it”—will reawaken the controversy. His argument implies (as a Bush super PAC staffer noted) opposition to plenty of other bills he says he supported but missed the votes on. Ted Cruz, who Rubio had on a back foot on immigration, was quick to point out he’d returned to D.C. to vote against the omnibus. On the other hand, Cruz used exactly the same rationale when he missed the vote on Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s nomination.

The lesson: Speaking nonsense about suffrage causes nothing but suffering.

Mike Blake / Reuters

The candidate: Donald J. “Yes, I’m Still Here” Trump

The gaffe: During the December 15 debate, moderator Hugh Hewitt asked Trump what his priority is in the nuclear triad. Trump ignored the question, warning against Syrian nuclear proliferation. Hewitt tried again. “I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” Trump managed to say, clearly having no idea what the nuclear triad is.

The defense: Yes, that’s what the question was about, defense. Even if Trump didn’t get that. (Marco Rubio picked up the baton, smoothly clarifying: “The triad is our ability of the United States to conduct nuclear attacks using airplanes, using missiles launched from silos or from the ground, and also from our nuclear subs’ ability to attack.”)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): James Fallows writes: “If realities mattered in this race, what Trump has just revealed would be fundamentally disqualifying ignorance for someone seeking a position of command responsibility.” That “if” is important. Back in the innocent days of September when we kicked off Gaffe Track, the first entry was about Trump botching a clever foreign-policy question from Hugh Hewitt. At the time, he was leading his nearest opponent by 14 points in the polls. Today? He leads by 17, and is enjoying his biggest overall polling numbers.

The lesson: If at first you don’t know foreign policy, there’s no compelling reason to try, try, triad again.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

The candidate: You’re not going to believe this, but Donald Trump

The gaffe: Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump made some statements about Israel and the peace process that didn’t go over so well. But he also unspooled a string of anti-Semitic stereotypes:

  • “I’m a negotiator like you folks were negotiators.”
  • “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than any room I’ve ever spoken.”
  • “I don’t want any of your money.
  • “Stupidly, you want to give money. Trump doesn’t want money.”
  • “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.”

Oy. Trump didn’t quite say Jews are moneygrubbers, but he came pretty, pretty close.

The defense: We’ll turn this over to the RJC’s spokesman, who suggests it’s OK to make Jewish jokes if you make them to Jews (or something): “Donald Trump is well aware of the composition of our board and our audience—one that includes many successful business men and women as well as dealmakers like him.”

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Who knows? There are lots of things that aren’t permitted in polite company that Trump does all the time. It’s a bit rich to see GOP grandees suddenly appalled by these jokes—after all, he’s been trading in racist stereotypes throughout the campaign.

The lesson: This schmuck’s shtick is a shanda.

The candidate: Donald Trump, of course.

The gaffe: During the dustup over Trump’s imagined massive Muslim celebrations in Jersey City after 9/11, one point of contention was a Washington Post article by Serge Kovaleski. Trump cited the story; Kovaleski, who suffers from a joint condition called arthrogryposis and is now a New York Times reporter, disputed Trump’s reading.  “Now the poor guy, you ought to see this guy. ‘Ah, I don’t know what I said! I don’t remember!’” Trump said, doing what looks a lot like a mocking physical impression of Kovaleski.

The defense: “I have no idea who this reporter, Serge Kovalski [sic], is, what he looks like or his level of intelligence,” Trump said in a statement. Kovaleski pointed out he has interviewed Trump at least a dozen times, going back to a tenure at the New York Daily News.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Oh, who knows? Mocking disabilities is generally considered verboten, but so are many other things Trump does. His steadfast refusal to back down on the matter, demanding an apology from the Times (really) just adds another freak attraction to the three-ring circus of his candidacy.

The lesson: It’s best to maintain plausible deniability, but failing that, implausible deniability can sometimes suffice.

James Glover II / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Perhaps it’s more the denouement of a gaffe. During a Facebook chat Tuesday, journalist-activist Jose Antonio Vargas criticized Clinton for referring to people who are in the country without official status as “illegal immigrants.” In response, she pledged to quit using the term.

The defense: The debate over how to refer to this group of people is heated and hardly resolved. The Associated Press, for example, in 2013 dropped “illegal immigrant” but also banned “undocumented immigrant” as imprecise and often untrue.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): In some ways, this is a microcosm of Clinton’s struggles: She comes from the ’60s, a long time ago, and she never seems so out of touch as when she deploys terminology that used to be acceptable but isn’t anymore. She also seems to periodically misstep, annoying progressives who don’t entirely trust her. But on the other hand, what are immigrant activists going to do? Back a Republican?

The lesson: Dude, ‘illegal immigrant’ is not the preferred nomenclature.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump, still somehow the GOP frontrunner

The gaffe: In an interview with Yahoo, Trump said … well, what exactly? “Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.” It sounds like Trump, who is allergic to specificity, just agreed with what was suggested. His own verbatim quotes are much vaguer:

We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule. And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.

The defense: It’s true that Trump didn’t put forth the ideas; he’s just incapable of saying no. But even if this is entrapment, surely it isn’t too much to ask that he speak against registering Muslims or forcing them to carry a Nazi-style special ID.

Why matters (or doesn’t): In a rational world, calling for, or even nodding along with, blatantly unconstitutional ideas like this would be disqualifying. In the real world, it’ll probably do nothing to hurt Trump and might even help him.

The moral: No one ever went broke overestimating American hysteria after a terrorist attack. They have, however, gone bust after over-leveraging hotels and casinos.

Jim Young / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: During the second Democratic debate Saturday, Bernie Sanders criticized Clinton for receiving donations from bankers. “I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked,” she said. “Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy. And it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.”

The defense: It is true that she was a senator from New York during the attacks, and that they struck the Financial District.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Who did Clinton think would buy this? Certainly not the left wing of the Democratic Party that sees her as too cozy with the finance world. Meanwhile, Republicans are more than happy to attack her for claiming that 9/11 is why bankers donate to her campaign. It’s too soon to know whether this gaffe will have much real impact, but it seems destined to be replayed over and over throughout the campaign.

The moral: As President Rudolph Giuliani showed, shameless invocation of 9/11 is a surefire path to the White House.

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: The Democrat was stumping in New Hampshire on Tuesday when a man in the audience asked a question about Carly Fiorina. “Every time I see her on TV, I want to reach through and strangle her,” he said. “I wouldn’t mess with you!” Clinton replied, cackling.

The defense: She’s right: You don’t want to mess with a guy who’s already discussed strangling another candidate.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): If you’re a candidate for president, you can’t just laugh and crack a joke when someone discusses strangling one of your Republican rivals. That’s especially true given the sexist jabs lobbed at Fiorina already in this campaign. Violence against women isn’t funny.

The lesson: Choking in the clutch when someone makes a strangulation joke may draw suffocatingly negative scrutiny.

The candidate: Ted Cruz

The gaffe: Asked how he’d account for lost federal revenue under tax cuts he’s proposed, the senator replied: “Five major agencies that I would eliminate: The IRS, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, the Department of Commerce and HUD.” (Cruz was missing the Department of Education.) As another Texan running for president once said, “Oops.”

The defense: Well, it’s harder to count to five than to Rick Perry’s three, give Cruz that.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): By the time Perry forgot the third agency he wanted to eliminate, he had already acquired a reputation as a flake. Cruz, a polished debater, doesn’t risk that. Still … ouch.

The lesson: Never underestimate the importance of education.