08.19.11

Best Political Gaffes of the Week

Never "misunderestimate" a road-weary politician’s ability to trip over his or her own tongue. David A. Graham picks the week’s best verbal manglings

Many pundits see the Ames Straw Poll as the real start of the presidential campaign—the point at which the race gets going in earnest and when the Barack Obamas are separated from the Dennis Kucinichs. We hear your groans, but there’s a silver lining: the gaffes. Long hours glad-handing, smiling forced smiles, kissing babies, and driving endless miles across the cornfields of Iowa and the other 56 states means candidates are susceptible to slips of the tongue and judgment. Here are the funniest, weirdest, and most appalling gaffes from this week.

5. Mitt Romney’s Good Taste
Campaign rule No. 1: stay on message. Mitt Romney was doing well during a visit to an elevator factory in New Hampshire, emphasizing job creation and his own business record. But on his way out the door, his head was apparently turned by the company’s general counsel’s girlfriend, Ellen Boss. Apparently forgetting she was a person and not an object, he directed his compliment at the lawyer: “Nice. Nice choice. Just like me.” Boss reportedly blushed. This Mitt Slip won’t cause lasting damage, but it’s certainly cringeworthy.

4. Fall From Graceland
When presidential contenders start talking about music, things tend to get awkward quickly—Thad McCotter’s shredding skills notwithstanding. Michele Bachmann showed why when she tried to wish Elvis Presley a happy birthday while barnstorming through Spartanburg, S.C., on Tuesday. It turned out she was all shook up—it was the anniversary of the King’s death, not his birth.

3. Buy American?
When you’re on the road talking about getting Americans back to work, you might choose an American-made bus for your tour to tout the resilience of American manufacturing. Or perhaps not. The New York Post gleefully discovered that the Secret Service bus President Obama rode on his Midwestern swing was made in Quebec. The awkward juxtaposition of the president riding on a $2.2 million luxury bus while talking about unemployment? That’s all just icing on the cake.
Honorable Mention: Not to be outdone by Romney, Obama had an awkward spouse joke of his own this week. In Iowa, he likened negotiations with House Republicans to negotiating with first lady Michelle Obama: “Everybody cannot get 100 percent of what they want. Now, for those of you who are married, there is an analogy here. I basically let Michelle have 90 percent of what she wants. But, at a certain point, I have to draw the line and say, ‘Give me my little 10 percent.’ ” Columnist Maureen Dowd was quick to tie that to liberal anger at Obama’s concessions to the GOP, quipping, “Maybe Michelle should be the one negotiating with the Republicans.”

But the top gaffe of the week is Perry’s comment on Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke, a remark that many commentators felt crossed the line from baffling or humorous into downright scary.

2. Back in the U.S.S.R.
There are many nice things to say about Michele Bachmann, but none of them involves her command of history. There was her Concord Confusion, for example, or her suggestion that a grammar-school-age John Quincy Adams qualified as a Founding Father. The latest slip: appearing on a radio show, she said that Americans are worried about “the rise of the Soviet Union.” Of course, Ronald Reagan—who Bachmann adores—is often credited with ending the Cold War and bringing about the Soviet Union’s demise, making the slip a bit odd.

1. Justice, Texas-Style
The winner of this week’s notable gaffe award goes to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the newcomer to the race. Perry hasn’t had as long to tally up verbal slips, but he made a valiant effort to catch up in his first week on the trail. We’ll start off with two comments that don’t qualify as gaffes, nor even as Kinsley Gaffes—i.e., accidentally telling the truth—since he clearly meant to say what he said and believes it. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t stupid. On Wednesday, he said scientists have manipulated data to fabricate global warming in order to get money, which the Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave a whopping four-Pinocchio rating. He also said that evolution is just “a theory that’s out there,” but again, consciously choosing to ignore science isn’t quite a gaffe. Here, however, is a real if minor gaffe: in Waterloo, Perry dropped some casual sexism, saying, “This shirt has a few wrinkles in it; it's not my wife's fault.” But the top gaffe of the week is Perry’s comment on Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke, a remark that many commentators felt crossed the line from baffling or humorous into downright scary. Perry said that if Bernanke were to embark on another round of quantitative easing—buying up government bonds to keep interest rates low—it would be “treasonous.” He went on: “If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas." The remark drew widespread condemnation not only from liberals but also from influential conservatives. Karl Rove blasted it as “unpresidential,” while John Podhoretz called it a “serious unforced error.” Next week, let’s stick to goofy, rather than ghastly, gaffes.