The Ghost of Gaffes Past

A selection of gaffes from the 2010 campaign that we should forgive.

Nancy Pelosi

The 2010 midterms marked the final handover of political news judgment from the professionals to the amateurs and operatives. Consider: Four years ago, when then-Sen. George Allen of Virginia, then running for re-election, called a Democratic video tracker “Macaca,” you could not see the video on your phone. You couldn’t tweet it. It was largely up to news organizations whether they covered the video, which is why conservatives blamed the Washington Post for blowing it up into a scandal by covering every angle of the incident.

Isn’t that quaint? Now we find out about damaging gaffes and videos because people record them (or clip them from TV) and put them online, then spread the word through social media. Most of the “must-see videos” from the trail this year got that way because conservative or liberal blogs were obsessing over them and the rest of the media had to notice. And that often led to a pack-dog mentality about these videos or other gaffes: Because everyone was talking about them, they had a political impact, and that often became more important than what the pols were actually saying.

All of these elections are history now, of course. But in the season’s spirit of cheer and forgiveness, it seems fair to rescue a few of these gaffes or flubs from the feeding frenzies we left them in. It’s pretty easy to tell if a flub is being manipulated for political impact. Is the title of the YouTube clip different from the quote in the article? Does it cut off in the middle of a sentence? I embed, you decide.

Christine O’Donnell: “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?”

By Oct. 19, when O’Donnell debated Chris Coons at Delaware’s Widener Law School, her image as a frothy Palin clone was impossible to shake. In a vacuum, her exchange with Coons would have done what she wanted to do—serve as a dog whistle to social conservatives while exposing Coons as a dogmatic liberal. But she wasn’t running in a vacuum, and her question about the establishment clause kicked off days of mockery about how little she knew about the Constitution.What was O’Donnell trying to do? She wanted to signal to social conservatives that she was on their side of the church-and-state debate. A literal reading of the Constitution, she was saying, would tell you that there is no separation.

Slate’s Will Saletan adeptly explained why, on the merits of how the Constitution is currently interpreted, O’Donnell was wrong. She was wrong as a political strategist, too—you don’t win an election in Delaware by proving your social-conservative cred to an electorate that’s voted Democratic for president in every election since 1992. But this was a pander, not a flub.

Nancy Pelosi: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

On March 9, the Speaker of the House spoke to the National Association of Counties about the health care bill that was days away from final passage. This was the phrase that launched a thousand campaign ads. Nine months later, this is remembered as Pelosi admitting what Tea Partiers had feared: that Democrats were ramming through bad bills without reading them. That wasn’t actually what she was saying. The full quote:

You’ve heard about the controversies within the bill, the process about the bill, one or the other. But I don’t know if you have heard that it is legislation for the future, not just about health care for America, but about a healthier America, where preventive care is not something that you have to pay a deductible for or out of pocket. Prevention, prevention, prevention—it’s about diet, not diabetes. It’s going to be very, very exciting. But we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy.

Pelosi was trying to say that the press was only reporting he-said-she-saids about the bill, and that its benefits would become clear, and popular, once it passed. They did become clear, though they have yet to become popular.

Ken Buck: “Why should you vote for me? Because I do not wear high heels.”

The Tea Party’s candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado was surging, with establishment pick Jane Norton vanishing into Bob Bennett-ville, when he appeared at an Independence Institute picnic and got a question—from a woman—about why he deserved her support. The results can be seen in the clip above.

What the hell made him want to say that? Was he making fun of Jane Norton’s gender? Well, no. Norton was an early adopter of one of 2010’s weirder campaign trends: female candidates challenging the manhood of male opponents. Norton was then currently running an ad attacking Buck for a third party group’s ad attacking her. “You’d think Ken would be man enough to do it himself,” said Norton in her ad. That explains what Buck said right after the “high heels” line: “She questioned my manhood. I think it’s fair to respond. I have cowboy boots. They have real bullshit on them. That’s Weld County bullshit, not Washington D.C. bullshit.”

The “high heels” line became the basis for the attack that ended up bringing down Buck: Women, you can’t trust this guy to defend you or the issues you care about. It’s probably why Buck’s decision not to prosecute a rape case as Weld County district attorney was used against him in a last-minute attack and the attack didn’t backfire.

Harry Reid: “Only 36,000 people lost their jobs today, which is really good.”

On March 5, the majority leader welcomed the release of a slightly better-than-expected unemployment report with a quick Senate floor speech. Economists had been predicting that the economy would shed 75,000 jobs, after only 20,000 had been shed the previous month. Reid, in the artless way that he’s perfected over 24 years in the Senate, made a basic economic point. Republicans put out an immediate press release: “Senator Reid’s ‘Big Day,’ Unless You’re One of Those 36,000.” Sharron Angle spun off TV ads accusing Reid of being blasé about unemployment. The clip of just the “really good” moment was blasted out by everyone who had a grudge against Reid, which, in 2010, was a whole lot of people.

It was a little unfair. The Republicans’ point in attacking Reid was that he was settling for bad economic news, unconcerned about changing course to boost the economy. Reid’s point was that the economy was recovering. He was backed up by economists, who saw this in a constellation of numbers pointing to a 2010 recovery. They were wrong and Reid was wrong, but he wasn’t gloating or satisfied about job loss.

Jerry Brown: “It’s like Goebbels. Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda.”

This is a rare gaffe in the Age of YouTube that persisted even though no video record of it exists. Radio reporter Doug Sovern bumped into California’s attorney general during a bike ride and had an off-the-cuff, on-the-record talk about Meg Whitman’s historic campaign spending and ad blitz. Brown, who hadn’t had a tough race since 1982, riffed about how “Goebbels invented this kind of propaganda. He took control of the whole world. She wants to be president. That’s her ambition, the first woman president. That’s what this is all about.” Cue: the outrage over Jerry Brown comparing his opponent to a Nazi.

And here’s where my standards for gaffing do not match up with the standards that will be accepted by every other media outlet from now through the end of time. Universal rule of politics: No Nazi comparison is ever, at any time, a good idea. Actual rule of how people talk: No one faints, weeps, or suffers if someone points out—for example—that the greatest propagandist of all time was Joseph Goebbels. (Quick, name the second-greatest propagandist of all time. It’s a pretty steep fall.) This is the verbal flub that we’re most likely to hear again in 2011, either from a fascism-fearing Tea Party congressman or a Democrat panicking about the Tea Party. Just like in 2010, the freak-out will make more news than what the offender actually says.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.