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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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.

Randall Hill / Reuters

The candidate: Rick Santorum, who is still running for president.

The gaffe: In Iowa, Santorum said a teacher asked him about his plan to deport undocumented immigrants, noting that many of her students were immigrants. “My response is, ‘Great. Do you realize what a blessing they will be to their country when they go back?’” Santorum said. “You are talking about folks who are going to be the leaders of their countries. I think that the best thing that we can do to stem the tide of illegal immigration is to have them go home and save their countries.” It’s Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” gaffe on steroids. And sometimes, deporting immigrants who have learned skills in the U.S. has ugly effects in their home countries. Just ask anyone who’s had a run-in with MS-13.

The defense: Some immigrants do come to the U.S. to learn skills and return home. But illegal immigrants overwhelmingly work in low-skill fields in the U.S.—they’re leaving home not for self-improvement, but because there aren’t good jobs at home.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Santorum hardly registers in this race, so it probably doesn’t matter much to him. And while GOP leaders once tried to keep a lid on rhetoric like this that would hurt its chances with immigrants, Donald Trump has made that effort obsolete, too.

The lesson: Counting illegal immigrants isn’t the same as counting their blessings.

The candidate: The Right Reverend Donald J. Trump

The gaffe: As Molly Ball reports, the Republican frontrunner (still, yes?) was at Liberty University. It was a good chance to prove his fidelity to Christianity, often questioned by skeptics. So how’d he do? “Two Corinthians, right? Two Corinthians 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame. Where the spirit of the Lord—right?—is, there is liberty!” Though one speaks with the tongues of men or of angels, that’s Second Corinthians to most folks.

The defense: Shouldn’t we really call it “the Second Epistle to the Corinthians” if we want to be persnickety? Besides, you know who criticized obsessive fidelity to textual traditions at the expense of true belief and essential meaning? This guy.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Trump’s rivals surely hope that this gaffe means that the last shall be first, and the first last. But although this is a thorn in the flesh for his campaign, it is not the last Trump, gone in the twinkling of an eye. Trump’s theological shallowness has been evident for some time, and yet he leads among evangelical voters. The powers that be among Christian conservatives have criticized him, to no avail. Trump will be helped by the fact that Jerry Falwell Jr., Liberty’s president, essentially called Trump a man after his own heart. (These are all, of course, phrases that Trump might know if he spent some quality time with the King James Version.)

The lesson: For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.

The candidate: Ted Cruz

The gaffe: During a campaign stop in Iowa, Cruz was asked about Hillary Clinton’s comments about Benghazi. “In my house, if my daughter Catherine, the five-year-old, says something she knows to be false, she gets a spanking,” Cruz said. “Well, in America, the voters have a way of administering a spanking.” Bruh, did you really just talk about spanking Hillary Clinton?

The defense: Cruz wasn’t advocating, like, actually spanking Clinton. See, it’s an analogy.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): This isn’t exactly a campaign-ending gaffe for Cruz, but it’s weird, especially for a guy who’s usually very polished and on-message. It’s a weird image to grasp for, and Cruz is getting some flak for talking about spanking—though many American parents also believe strongly in the value of some modest corporal punishment.

The moral: Spare the Rodham, spoil the child.

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.