Likely Republican presidential contenders keep putting their feet in their mouths. And that leaves fellow candidates picking up the pieces.
Early last month, Chris Christie sparked a firestorm when he hedged on whether parents should vaccinate their kids. Soon after, nearly every other likely Republican 2016er was asked the same question. Then came Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's "punt" on whether he believes in evolution, shining a spotlight on other candidates' views of creationism. Later in February, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (who does not appear to be running for president) jibed that President Obama "doesn't love America," putting people like Walker (who does appear to be running) in a tough spot. And last week, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson said he not only thinks being gay is a choice, but prisons illustrate it: "a lot of people who go into prison straight, and when they come out they're gay"—a comment that will now almost certainly come up in Republican primary debates.
The GOP has a problem with one person, whether a current potential candidate or just a high-profile once-ran, making controversial comments. In a media climate with scores of reporters covering every candidate and jostling for stories, Republican 2016ers have to answer for every out-there thing that someone in the wide field—or even someone who's already had his time in the campaign spotlight—says. That puts GOP contenders in the position of responding to questions for which they might not have an answer. It also stands in sharp contrast to the Democratic side—that is, presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, whose silence on what members of her own party say, and more importantly, her own policy beliefs, rarely breaks.
That gives her an advantage, Republican National Committee Communications Director Sean Spicer told National Journal.
"The scale is tilted in her direction," he said. He blames that on journalists, whom he said don't ask the same "reaction" questions of Democrats. Calling the dynamic a "double standard," he rejects the explanation that the notoriously tight-lipped Clinton camp almost never talks to reporters.
"That's a cop-out, to be completely honestly with you, by reporters who say, 'Well, Hillary's just not talking,'" he said, arguing that when reporters email Republicans, they turn a non-response into a story. "When you email us, you'll say, 'You have one hour to respond or we're going to say that you didn't comment.'"
Candidates know that they have to answer tough questions once they actually start on the trail. But the sheer breadth of the GOP field allows for a higher possibility of controversial comments that Republicans already are being asked to react to—which, in turn, means a higher possibility of gaffes or media circuses that take campaigns off course.
None of the Republicans has been seriously hurt by this yet, Keith Appell, senior vice president at GOP public relations firm CRC, told National Journal. But "if somebody says something really dumb" closer to the primaries, he said, it could swing the pendulum.
"If the race is frozen for a couple days, those are days that you lose being on offense in putting out your agenda, and attacking Hillary Clinton or the Democrats," Appell said.
GOP contenders have tried different tactics to avoid this. After Giuliani questioned Obama's patriotism, Marco Rubio used Spicer's "double-standard" premise to deflect reporters.
"I don't feel like I'm in a position to have to answer for every person in my party that makes a claim," the Florida senator said in an interview with WPBF-TV of West Palm Beach, Florida. "Democrats aren't asked to answer every time Joe Biden says something embarrassing, so I don't know why I should answer every time a Republican does. I'll suffice it to say that I believe the President loves America, I think his ideas are bad."
Walker has attempted a more brusque approach. When asked last month to weigh in on Giuliani's charge that Obama doesn't love America, he tried to steer clear of the flap, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I don't really know what his opinions are on that one way or another." But that backfired, and his ambiguity became its own story. Along with Christie and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Walker did not respond to requests for comment on this story, and both Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's teams declined to comment.
But avoiding a question isn't sustainable. Even if the question seems trivial, Appell said, "more often than not, it's going to be something that you probably should address at some point ... At some point, you look a bit too cut off, too distant, or you look a little elitist, if you decide that's beneath me, I'm not going to react to that."
Spicer agreed that anything a "prominent, in office, Republican leader" says is "fair game."
"It's just one of those realities you have to face. You can't hide from the media. They're an integral part of the democratic process," he said. "Whining" about reporters, he noted, "isn't going to win you a campaign."
But, most importantly, candidates know the rules of the game when they get in the race. And they need to be prepared to answer anything.
"It's a question of: 'Are you ready for it?' Because this is what it is," Appell said. "It's not going to change."
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