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 41 Newer Notes

Gaffe Track: Hillary's Employment Plan for Coal Miners

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: During a Democratic town hall in Columbus, Ohio, Clinton tried to tout her plan for clean energy and worker retraining, but she used an odd approach. “I’m the only candidate which [sic] has a policy about how about how to bring economic opportunity, using clean, renewable energy as a key, into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business … and we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations.” Needless to say, it’s the line about coal miners and companies that’s getting the most attention.

The defense: The coal jobs are largely gone already, a victim not of Democratic politicians so much as of economics. Presidential policy is unlikely to bring them back, so retraining makes sense.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): What possessed Clinton to say something like this, in the midst of an answer trying to reassure working-class voters? Perhaps it was just a lapse of judgment. Or perhaps there’s a different logic to it: The Democratic Party has increasingly lost Appalachian voters who were part of the New Deal coalition, with environmentalists taking more power in the party. Those people are likely to be excited about the prospect of putting coal companies out of business, but the clumsy comment probably won’t do much for hopes that Clinton would win working-class whites back after Barack Obama.

The lesson: If a candidate is naughty, she is liable to take her lumps from coal.

Reed Saxon / AP

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: Friday, as Nancy Reagan was being laid to rest, the Democrat praised her predecessor: “It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan—in particular Mrs. Reagan—we started a national conversation.” Clinton is right about the difficulty, but the Reagan administration was part of what created it, not a constructive force against it. Ronald Reagan’s press secretary literally laughed off questions about the disease. The couple did nothing to help their old friend Rock Hudson as he died from it. But some historians have credited Nancy Reagan with convincing her husband to open up—a little bit—about AIDS late in his tenure.

The defense: Within hours, Clinton issued a rare quick, full retraction of her comments:

Why it matters (or doesn’t): The headlines are telling. Hillary Clinton Shockingly Praises Nancy Reagan's 'AIDS Activism'” (Huffington Post). “Hillary Clinton's Reagan AIDS Revisionism Is Shocking, Insulting, and Utterly Inexplicable” (Gawker). “Hillary Clinton said something really weird about Nancy Reagan and AIDS” (Vox). Even the head of the Human Rights Campaign, which has endorsed Clinton, took issue with the comments:

It’s a weird unforced error.

The lesson: Don’t speak ill of the dead, but don’t make things up about them, either.

Jim Young / Reuters

The candidate: Bernie Sanders

The gaffe: Today, March 7, is the 60th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when state troopers beat civil-rights marchers coming over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Seeking to mark the occasion, Sanders tweeted, “Bloody Sunday was about showing the entire world how far some would go to prevent African-Americans from voting,” along with a photo. As Twitter users quickly pointed out, that image, here via Politwoops, isn’t from the march—it’s from the acclaimed 2014 film Selma. Close, but no cigar!

The defense: Critics did praise Selma for its realism.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Once again, Sanders has bobbled his African American political outreach. As usual, the question isn’t whether he has good intentions, and this isn’t nearly as egregious the Republican National Committee’s face-palm inducing 2013 claim that Rosa Parks had had helped to “end[...] racism.” But there’s a reason Hillary Clinton is winning black voters by massive margins around the country.

The lesson: As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘Never tweet.’”

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The candidate: John Kasich

The gaffe: The Ohio governor was speaking at Virginia’s George Mason University Monday and recalled his first run for office, in 1978. “I didn't have anybody for me. We just got an army of people, who, and many women, who left their kitchens to go out and go door to door and to put yard signs up for me. All the way back, when—you know things were different. Now you call homes and everybody's out working. But at that time, early days, it was an army of the women that really helped me get elected to the state senate.”

The defense: The suggestion that women can be found in kitchens is unfortunate, although Kasich’s story is from 1978, and he points to an important shift in the workforce: More and more women work full-time jobs outside the home now, as he noted.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Kasich maybe deserves a pass, or at least a judicious hearing here, but it’s not his first tone-deaf remark about women. Remember when, at another campus event in Virginia this fall, he told one woman, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any Taylor Swift concert tickets” and another, “I’m sure you get invited to all of the parties.” Awkward, dude. His comment also comes the day after he signed a bill defunding Planned Parenthood in the Buckeye State.

The lesson: Before telling this story, Kasich should have conferred with his kitchen cabinet, which might have suggested he keep it Kitchen Confidential. But it’s not going to kitchen sink his campaign.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

The candidate: Donald J. Trump, the classiest candidate

The gaffe: Discussing Ted Cruz’s opposition (in most cases!) to waterboarding, Trump heard a shout in the audience. “She just said a terrible thing,” Trump said. You know what she said? Shout it out because I don’t want to say.” She did it, but he decided to repeat it anyway. “OK. You’re not allowed to say—and I never expect to hear that from you again,” he impishly scolded. “She said he’s a pussy. That’s terrible. Terrible!” Meow!

The defense: Trump clearly knew he shouldn’t repeat it; he just couldn’t help himself. (Tuesday morning he said it was “like a retweet,” the forum he’s used to amplify white supremacists.)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): That moment isn’t what we’d call “presidential”—even LBJ had the common sense to keep this kind of thing private. In fact, it’s not what we’d expect from any adult in polite company outside of a frat house or a sporting event (but we repeat ourselves). But Trump seems to love using it. Will it hurt Trump? Maybe insofar as all of Trump’s outrageous moments aggregate into an impression of him as a clown. But the specific moment? Hard to imagine it will.

The lesson: Even when you’re just kitten around, you should paws to make sure you’re not hurting anyone’s felines.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

The candidate: Marco Rubio

The gaffe: With the press and rivals hounding him about the tendency to repeat canned soundbites both on the stump and in debates, Rubio went on stage on Monday in Nashua and, well, see for yourself:

Easily the best part of this clip is that awkward pause at 25 seconds, where Rubio appears to realize what he’s doing.

The defense: Let’s dispel with the notion that Rubio didn’t know what he was doing. He knew exactly what he was doing.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): When you’re in a hole, quit digging: It’s one cliche that Rubio doesn’t seem to know. Mocked for repeating lines by Chris Christie at Saturday’s debate, he repeated lines. With the press piling on and scrutinizing his every move, he did it again in Nashua. As I wrote Monday, being robotic isn’t really the problem—it’s the impression that a politician who repeats himself can’t think for himself or improvise, or make the tough, instant decisions a president must.

The lesson: In the 21st century, we know how hard it’s become to instill flexibility in our candidates, instead of the talking points they try to ram down our throats.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton

The gaffe: During Wednesday night’s Democratic forum, Anderson Cooper asked Clinton whether she shouldn’t have taken $675,000 to give three speeches to Goldman Sachs. “Well, I don't know. That’s what they offered,” she replied. That, uh, wasn’t the point of the question, Madam Secretary.

The defense: “Every secretary of state that I know has done that.” Which: LOL! That’s not a great excuse, and also none of them are running for president. Also: “They’re not giving me that much money now,” which is a tougher sell given that they’re giving even less to her rival, Bernie Sanders. Finally, she said that she gave the speeches because she wasn’t committed to running for president.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This answer is especially strange, but Clinton’s ongoing struggles to explain her relationship with Wall Street—remember this November gem?—are a real liability, especially against Sanders, who is obviously no friend to Wall Street. Not only has she failed to put these questions to rest, answers like her one Wednesday night are so tin-eared as to amplify the problem. And her not-yet-running excuse is risky. Does anyone truly believe she didn’t intend at the time to campaign for president? And if she was considering it, shouldn’t she have skipped the speeches, under her own logic that a candidate shouldn’t give the talks?

The lesson: You can take the money, or you can run, but you can’t take the money and run.

Brian C. Frank / Reuters

The candidate: Chris Christie

The gaffe:

The defense: What, you’re surprised by Chris Christie getting overly aggressive?

Why it matters (or doesn’t): What’s amazing about Christie’s comment is that he’s not even the first to commit such a, shall we say, derri-error in the last month: Ted Cruz also proposed “spanking” the Democratic frontrunner. Both candidates have risked making asses of themselves to show how harsh they’ll be with Clinton, but perhaps they should butt out. As Rick Lazio could tell them, stepping to her physically isn’t a good political strategy. In Christie’s case, it may be a desperation play: With his numbers flagging, he appears to be on the tail end of his campaign.

The lesson: Christie can promise all he wants about hypotheticals, but it’s wiser to stick to the facts than to make a posteriori claims.

Andrew Harnik / AP

The candidate: Ted Cruz

The gaffe: Speaking in New Hampshire, the senator told a personal tale of woe: “You know who one of those millions of Americans who's lost their health care because of Obamacare? That would be me. I don't have health care right now.” He used to be covered by his wife’s plan at Goldman Sachs, but she's on leave. He added, “By the way, when you let your health-insurance policy lapse, your wife gets really ticked at you. It’s not a good—I’ve had, shall we say, some intense conversations with Heidi on that.” It turns out he should have had some intense conversations with his insurance broker: He never lost coverage at all.

The defense: Cruz’s spokeswoman says the broker gave Cruz bad information. Cruz was automatically placed in a new plan when his old one expired on December 31, but he now says he wants to enroll in a different, wider plan—which is going to cost him more. (Jokes about harping wives are always hilarious, though!)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Every Cruz misstep is surprising, because he’s a very disciplined candidate. This is a weird case because it’s such an unforced error—Cruz’s tearjerker almost immediately seemed fishy, and indeed turned out to be wrong. But being confused about your insurance is far more relatable than being confused about when to disclose loans from Goldman Sachs.

The lesson: Everyone has wished they could forget their dealings with their HMO, but few of us have actually succeeded.

Jim Young / Reuters

The candidate: Bernie Sanders (making his first Gaffe Track appearance—congratulations!)

The gaffe: Thursday was the sixth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, and the Vermont senator delivered a tweet storm lamenting it, including this:

That’s not how Supreme Court decisions work, of course—justices can only review questions that come before the court, and can’t simply decide to revisit old precedent unbidden.

The defense: Schoolhouse Rock’s ditty on how bills become laws is a classic, but their song about Marbury v. Madison was a dud.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Sanders, a second-term senator and veteran representative, surely knows how the Court works. But at a time when Hillary Clinton and her allies are arguing that Sanders’s promises to voters are unrealistic, making silly claims about the Supreme Court plays right into their hands.

The lesson: Overpromise about judges not, lest ye be judged.

Charlie Neibergall / AP

The candidate: Carly Fiorina

The gaffe: On Wednesday, a group of pre-schoolers in Des Moines went on what was billed as a field trip to the botanical gardens. Instead, they somehow ended up seated directly in front of Carly Fiorina and a large anti-abortion poster at a rally. The Guardian suggested Fiorina had herded the class in. “The kids went there to see the plants,” said one father. “She ambushed my son’s field trip …. I would not want my four-year-old going to that forum—he can’t fully comprehend that stuff. He likes dinosaurs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Transformers.”

The defense: Fiorina’s spokeswoman says the kids followed her into the event on their own after bonding with her while watching koi.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): It’s ironic that a candidate who believes fetuses are autonomous human beings has no hesitations about drafting unwitting pre-schoolers into her rally. It’s not Fiorina’s first headscratching moment on abortion; last fall, she described a video that did not exist, insisting it did. But hey, she could use the attention, however it comes.

The lesson: It’s best to handle divisive issues like abortion with kid gloves, not kid props.

Mike Segar / Reuters

The candidate: Jeb Bush

The gaffe: Bush was speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations on Tuesday, and wanted to explain how cultural differences could hinder communication with China. He noted that Michelle Obama had skipped a summer in Palm Springs, offending some Chinese people. “Every meeting I had in Beijing started out for the first 10 minutes lambasting me about why it was, as an American, why it was that we insulted China. And I’m thinking, you know what, it could be that Mrs. Obama was worried about the science project of Malala.” The president’s daughter is Malia. Malala is a Nobel laureate.

The defense: Jeb’s heart was clearly in the right place here. (Incredibly, this is the second Gaffe Track cameo for the Pakistani teen activist; in November Marco Rubio rather curiously said he wanted to have a beer with her.)

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Jeb is struggling to emulate his father and brother’s examples and win the Republican nomination, but it seems like he did inherit the Bush family proclivity for the verbal gaffe. But really, is “Malia” such a hard name? This hardly suggests Bush is laser-focused and sharp as he attempts a late-game comeback in the GOP primary.

The lesson: You can fool some of the voters some of the time, but you can’t fool Malala people all the time.