When is a ‘gaffe’ a deal-breaker?

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Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry looks at his notes during a Republican Presidential Debate at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich., Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

‘OK, that’s it,” said my guest one day last week.

“That’s what?”

“The Perry campaign: It’s officially over. Look, I’ve found the moment.”

Together, in mild stupefaction, we watched as a fellow-creature, accoutred with gorgeous mammalian hair that is fully the equivalent of Mitt Romney’s, and fashioned in the very image of god, failed repeatedly to remember the names of the federal agencies that he had sworn to put out of their misery. We watched further, inwardly wincing and cringing, as the awful moment somehow managed to protract itself.

This was mainly an effect of the candidate’s own non-talent for ingratiation; miserably seeking protection in the aw-shucks tone and failing – entirely failing – to grasp that “oops” in any accent sounds bad enough, but that in the tones of Texas (“Ee-yoops”) more resembles the last-ditch whine of a luckless peon for mercy. I don’t see how it could have been any worse. Failure at this level – failure to recall your own self-administered briefing, plus a free tour for the public of all your least reassuring personal tics – is defeat on a scale that disqualifies the candidate from being in a debate in the very first place.

But I nonetheless closed the lid of the computer and handed it back. “He’s not done yet. Or he’s only out if he wants to quit for some other reason.”

Why did I say and believe this? The first and fairly obvious reason is that nobody else in the lineup of either party has any special reason just yet to wish to see Perry’s back (in the political sense, I mean). But second, and initially harder to grasp, is this: By the time it got to me, the horror story about the federal cull, the Texas whatnot massacre, had already been assigned a name and a rating. It was, officially, “a gaffe.”

That’s right. Not a spoiler, a wrecker, a campaign-ender, a pack-your-traps-and-plod-off moment – it wasn’t anything of the kind. Instead, it was something more in the nature of a “wake-up call” or whatever anodyne phrase was in use that week. And the news about gaffes is that they are being dumbed down.

It has long been understood that an apparent gaffe can be of great use to a candidate in trouble. When Ronald Reagan made some hapless blunder – about his famous ability to “recall” intercontinental ballistic missiles, for example – and then came up grinning so fetchingly, it seemed to redound to his credit. Or, which is not perhaps quite the same thing, to his authenticity as a fallible mammal shaped in the image of god. Talking to his fans the next day, one could hear them saying that it was just the sort of all-too-human blunder that they might have made themselves. So who or what do you want as the nation’s chief executive? Some sort of robot? Or a regular guy who’s big enough to admit to a – careful how you phrase it here, don’t overdo the false humility – gaffe?

If I am right about this, it would go some way to explaining the huge effect that a non-gaffe can sometimes have. You know the sort of thing I mean: Howard Dean’s Bates Motel squawk was nothing in literal terms when set beside Perry’s monumental self-sabotage. But the fact was that people did think they had detected a “contents under pressure” streak in Dean, and this looked like its blazing occurrence at twilight’s last gleaming. In similar or related ways, Al Gore didn’t really claim to have invented the Internet or been the whole inspiration for Love Story; Dan Quayle never expressed surprise that they didn’t speak Latin in Latin America; and Gov. Jerry Brown and the word “moonbeam” have no obvious connection of any sort. But somehow there seemed plausibility – for quite other reasons – to the insinuations. And that’s often enough. One day I’ll make a fortune by discovering who is on the committee that decides as between gaffes and terminal screw-ups, and then by discovering how one gets to join said committee. Someone must know.

Ross Douthat has almost claimed to be one of those people. In a column in the New York Times in October, he posited an actuarial reason to keep the Republican field of candidates as full, and as open, as humanly possible: Romney has already won. So no need to disqualify any of the lesser candidates with terminal screw-ups. But – and here is where Douthat’s column gets rather clever – Romney isn’t necessarily going to wrap it up soon, and neat, and tight, because my great profession cannot yet bear to declare him victorious. My profession (or craft or racket) is not alone in this reluctance. We must also consider the pollsters, the farmers, and tenders of focus groups, the producers of candidate debates, the places where they sing and where new and aspirant pundits are constantly being grown, like exotic outgrowths on a moistened sponge in the dark. Reflecting on this, there seems more grist to it now than there did then.

It must be a while since the contrast between a candidate and his two positions on an issue were as wildly at odds as those of Newt Gingrich and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae. Sliding down the mental scale a snake or two, Michele Bachmann has continued to amaze with every opportunity given her. Mounting a ladder only to get a view of some dismaying serpents, one scans a briefing by “Republican strategist” Alex Castellanos in which he seems to suggest that a Sarah Palin endorsement of Newt Gingrich could be offset only by an immediate declaration of Mike Huckabee for Mitt!

Forced to look at this picture for a quaking second or two, one sort of understands why it is that people want to buy time, and to keep the warm and reassuring pack together. This would probably lead to an America where calm Mormon management would seem suddenly “normal.” It remains to be seen whether such a weird outcome would be worth a decline in the real currency of the gaffe.

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