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 46 Newer Notes
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.

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.