Toward an Iron Law of Gaffes

The Romney campaign’s missives to the media today ask us to pay close attention to articles about Barack Obama’s Revealing Gaffe. The “gaffe” in question was Obama’s comment, made at the Univision forum, that he’d learned “you can’t change Washington from the inside.” Team Romney points reporters to members of the tribe who got the message.

BuzzFeed’s Zeke Miller: “The Admission Also Seemed To Undercut A Central Premise Of His 2008 Election… Reinforces The Perception That Obama Could Not Accomplish What He Set Out To Do.” (BuzzFeed, 9/20/12)

’s Jonathan Martin: “Eyebrow-Raising Concession…” (Politico, 9/20/12)

BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith: “Perhaps Obama’s Worst Gaffe Since He Met Joe The Plumber…”  (Twitter.com, 9/20/12)

I like these guys, but didn’t they get snowed? Obama had made this point about the power of outside pressure on Washington many times before. In the Univision context, Obama was getting hamstrung by his failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform “in my first year,” one of his great failures. His larger point – one that activists have been happy to make – is that after Congress ground down the gears, DREAMers who’d benefit from immigration reform kept up the pressure, and eventually Obama instructed the DHS not to prioritize deportations of illegal immigrants under 30.

If you pay close enough attention to the president, you know this. So I wonder if we can write some binding rule for “gaffe” coverage. Has the candidate made the statement the same way before? Then it’s not a mistake. Did the candidate use a few words the wrong way in a riff he uses all the time? Ah, that’s a mistake. See: “you didn’t build that,” a mangled but totally explicable Obama line about the benefits of the “American system.” It was a digression in one speech, and he never made it again.

For now, though, everything that a rival campaign claims as a “gaffe” gets covered as a gaffe. Jonathan Martin puts it well:

It’s the political equivalent of living off the land, taking whatever the daily news cycle offers up to make your case. On Tuesday and Wednesday, that meant pushing the “redistribution” video that found its way to Drudge in the midst of the flap over Romney’s comments about Americans who don’t pay income taxes. And on Thursday, it was a selective interpretation of Obama’s Univision quote.

Does this stuff work for Romney? The randomness of the “gaffe” obsessions suggests that it doesn’t. The Obama campaign seizes on Romney statements, like the ones in the “47 percent” tape, to build its argument that Romney’s an out-of-touch rich jerk who’ll make you pay higher taxes so he can pay less. The Romney campaign’s approach is more random. One day, Obama is a stealthy socialist. The next day, he’s an incompetent Washington politician. A few days before that, his vice president was making coded appeals to black racism.