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 37 Newer Notes

Gaffe Track: Gaffney Track

Nancy Wiechec / Reuters

The candidate: Ted Cruz

The gaffe: The Texas Republican recently named Frank Gaffney as a foreign-policy adviser. Gaffney is outspoken on Islam, and often makes inflammatory and inaccurate statements; the Southern Poverty Law Center named him to its hate list. In 2009, Gaffney called Obama “the first Muslim president,” laying out reasons to suspect he was a crypto-Muslim. Asked about that statement on Monday, Cruz refused to disclaim it, telling Wolf Blitzer, “I'm not interested in playing the media 'gotcha game' of 'Here's every quote everyone who's supporting you has ever said at any point, do you agree with every statement?' That's silliness.”

The defense: In general, it’s hard to hold a candidate to account for every statement any adviser has made.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): That general defense doesn’t really hold up here. Is there any context in which Gaffney’s comments might not be over the line? Besides, presumably Cruz chose Gaffney because of the signal it sends that he is willing to be tough on Islam. It’s possible (though hardly flattering) that Cruz isn’t aware of this specific Gaffney remark, but to be unaware of this aspect of his record is to be unaware of Gaffney’s entire MO. This is a guy who has also claimed that everyone from Hillary Clinton adviser Huma Abedin to famed GOP anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist are agents for Islamism.

The lesson: With friends like this, you’re bound to attract enemies.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: There were many strange moments in the GOP front-runner’s interview with the editorial board of The Washington Post: when he hit on an editor. When he called for looser libel laws. When he discussed his glove size. But some attention has fallen on his answer to Post Publisher Fred Ryan, who asked him whether he’d use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS. In simple terms, that’s a smaller bomb, aimed not at destroying a whole city, but for battlefield use. “I don’t want to use, I don’t want to start the process of nuclear,” Trump replied, then veered into electoral politics. “Remember the one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counterpuncher. Rubio hit me. Bush hit me. When I said low energy, he’s a low-energy individual, he hit me first. I spent, by the way he spent 18 million dollars’ worth of negative ads on me.” Ryan gently reminded him the question was about ISIS, not Marco or Jeb. Trump bailed: “I’ll tell you one thing, this is a very good looking group of people here. Could I just go around so I know who the hell I’m talking to?”

The defense: You can’t prove definitively that he doesn’t know what a tactical nuclear weapon is or that he hasn’t through through the issue. You can only strongly infer it.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Oh come on, this is Trump: All that matters is that he sounds “tough.” He’s been talking about nukes for more than 30 years and yet he seems to have learned nothing about them. But it’s reasonable to expect a prospective president to have a more fully developed answer on nuclear weapons than mentioning his vanquished electoral opponents—especially when that candidate has demonstrated his ignorance about nuclear weapons in the past.

The lesson: A man who bombs an interview might be a risky bet to control the bombs.

Steve Marcus / Reuters

The candidate: Donald Trump

The gaffe: Here’s Trump in Salt Lake City Friday: “I have many friends that live in Salt Lake. I have a lot of friends, I have a lot of friends. By the way, Mitt Romney is not one of them. Did he choke? Did this guy choke? He’s a choke artist, I can’t believe. Are you sure he’s a Mormon? Are we sure?”

The defense: This was delivered in the course of a classic Trump riff, in which he referred to a group with a definite article (“the blacks,” “this Hispanics”) while inadvertently suggesting he has no real connection to them. “I have a couple of friends, I have actually one who’s Jewish and he loves ... the Mormons, he loves the Mormons.” You… have a friend who knows Mormons? OK, dude.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): Yeah, we’re pretty sure Romney is a Mormon. He’s from a long line of Mormons, has been open about his faith, and served as a bishop. Besides, why would he lie about it? The sometimes offensive, often awkward questions asked of Romney ran for president in 2012 show why he’d be unlikely to fake his faith as a lark. There’s not a great deal of polling for Tuesday’s Utah caucuses, but Trump is trailing, and this can’t help.

The lesson: Trump’s feint ain’t gonna taint this Latter Day Saint.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

The candidate: Hillary Clinton, a recent repeat offender.

The gaffe: During an MSNBC town hall Monday night, Clinton defended the U.S. intervention in Libya, which she strongly supported as secretary of state. “Libya was a different kind of calculation. And we didn't lose a single person. We didn't have a problem in supporting our European and Arab allies in working with NATO,” she said. As many people quickly pointed out, that overlooked the four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, killed in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

The defense: In context, it appears Clinton was referring to the actual military intervention, rather than the aftermath. In contrast to the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. deployed ships, drones, and planes around Libya, but not significant ground forces.

Why it matters (or doesn’t): To borrow a phrase, what difference, at this point, does it make? For one thing, it suggests that Clinton is either trying to distract from the deaths or else insensitive to them. She seemed to have largely quelled questions about Benghazi after her marathon day of hearings in the House; why reawaken the issue?

The lesson: Never underestimate the cultural currency and influence of Michael Bay.

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.