Political Animal


September 20, 2012 3:13 PM Gaffes That Supposedly Kill

By Ed Kilgore

As Mitt Romney continues to flop in the verbal net of his own devising, the New York Times’ John Harwood produces a useful and entertaining list of the “top ten verbal misfires” by presidential candidates over the last half-century or so.

Most are famous and familiar, and range from Mitt’s father’s “brainwashing” comment back in 1968 to John McCain’s sunny comments about the “fundamentals” of the U.S. economy in 2008.

You can peruse the list yourself; all I’d add is that there is continuing controversy about whether any of these items had the kind of impact Harwood suggests. George Romney’s may be the clearest case, since his campaign went into an immediate death spiral from which it quickly expired. In a recent piece for the Washington Monthly, John Sides disputes another thought to be a killer, Gerald Ford’s Poland gaffe in 1976.

What most of them have in common, however, is that they illustrated a candidate characteristic or point of view already widely perceived, and widely perceived as damaging. And that could be how the Boca Moment is remembered down the road.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • BillFromPA on September 20, 2012 3:30 PM:

    Actually I'd add Howard Dean's Primal Scream at the end of his primary speech and John Kerry's reference to Dick Cheney's daughter being a lesbian as being campaign killers, the thing here being that they were made to be that by the Villagers clutching their pearls as they reached for the salts. Show the Dean speech and Kerry's obviously true debate reply to some 25 yr old voters in the next Pres cycle and they'll never believe the reactions of the punditry.

  • Josef K on September 20, 2012 3:58 PM:

    What most of them have in common, however, is that they illustrated a candidate characteristic or point of view already widely perceived, and widely perceived as damaging. And that could be how the Boca Moment is remembered down the road.

    If we're supremely fortunate, it will be all that Romney is remembered for.

    If whatever gods are listening will bless us, it will be a talisman that will be hung around the neck of every Republican seeking election for the next ten generations.

  • SteveCT on September 20, 2012 4:10 PM:

    Mitt Romney
    Believe in (roughly half of) America

  • c u n d gulag on September 20, 2012 4:18 PM:

    I don't know if some of those really were "gaffe's."

    If you knew anything about the situation around the world, Ford's was the biggest MISTAKE.

    But I don't think it qualifies as a "gaffe."
    Even he knew better than that.

  • flubber on September 20, 2012 4:26 PM:

    Not a national race, but Clayton Williams, good-ol'-boy Republican candidate for Governor of Texas, had a famous gaffe:

    "Bad weather is like rape, if it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it"

    He was leading Ann Richards- female, democrat, former teacher- by 10-20%. And he lost.

  • smartalek on September 20, 2012 4:28 PM:

    "that could be how the Boca Moment is remembered down the road."


  • bushytailed on September 20, 2012 4:42 PM:

    ...happened to listen to Fox's Hannity coming home from mother's, having not listened in a long time, AND knowing how defiant the right winger generally is--he absolutely sounded defeated/deflated/doomed/down--whether aware of it or not-- as if he knew his candidate's election is now lost...

  • Doug on September 20, 2012 4:43 PM:

    George Romney's "brainwashing" remark is, I think, definitely in the "gaffe" category.
    From what I understand of his follow-up remarks, he was attempting to explain why he had changed his position on Viet Nam. That change was because, not only did he no longer believe the information the US military provided, he also believed the military had been peddling bull puckey and that the US military knew it was bull puckey as they were peddling it.
    Casting doubt on the US military, however well-deserved, was NOT a good position for any politician to take in 1968, let alone a Republican cadidate for the Presidency.

  • j on September 20, 2012 4:43 PM:

    As Mitt Romney says he does not agree with re-distribution,
    I hope someone asks him if he would support the federal government on distributing federal dollars to states at a level of 1 to 1 dollar paid in taxes by state.
    I wonder if he knows our federal dollars are being re-distributed to states that will vote for him!

  • DJ on September 20, 2012 4:47 PM:

    While the "rape" gaffe hurt Williams, the one that really finished him off was the one he made on the Friday before the election. Ann Richards had released her income taxes and demanded Williams do the same. He refused. The pressure built, and in response to a question, he said "I have paid millions of dollars in taxes." Then he added "Except in 1986, when I didn't pay any." Everyone missed it except Bill Crier, Richards's press secretary, who convinced her to bring it up in front of a union audience. This she did, with spectacular results.

    Now do you see why Romney doesn't want to release his taxes?

  • T2 on September 20, 2012 5:10 PM:

    I think you have to put Rick Perry's "Oops" gaffe on the list. That took him from a probable nominee to a has-been in 30 seconds.

  • James E. Powell on September 20, 2012 5:23 PM:

    Actually, I do not see why Romney doesn't want to release this tax returns. I can only infer that it is because something in those returns will almost certainly doom his campaign.

    It has to be something so bad that his voters will desert him because of it. And his voters are sticking to him like their lives depended on it. It isn't like he's made a case for himself; his whole campaign is "not Obama."

    Think about it. Will the wealthy who vote Republican every time not do so because of something in his tax returns? Will the ignorant bigots change their minds about a black president? Will pro-life voters abandon their cause?

    Which bloc of Romney/Republican voters would object to anything in tax returns to a degree that would cause them not to vote for Romney and against Obama?

    It has to be really, really bad, no?

  • hornblower on September 20, 2012 5:32 PM:

    " Rum, Romanism and Rebellion" Sorry wrong century.

  • JM917 on September 20, 2012 5:52 PM:

    Ford's comment denying Soviet domination in Poland was, IMO, a classic example of a campaign "gaffe" in that Ford genuinely meant to say something other than what it sounded like was coming out of his mouth.

    I believe Ford when he explained, the day after, that having recently witnessed a huge, spontaneous outpouring of pro-American feelings from masses of Warsaw citizens when he arrived for state visit convinced him that there was no domination of the Polish people's spirits by the Soviet Union and the country's communist rulers. Ford was not so stupid as not to know that politically Poland was part of the Soviet sphere of influence--that had been a political fact of life for as long as Jerry Ford was in Congress, and no Republican politician from Michigan would have failed to know it.

    Instead, Ford, under the pressure of the debate format, simply failed to make clear what he was trying to say. That kind of verbal awkwardness is, to my mind, what a "gaffe" means.

    I remember that moment in the debate. A few years earlier, I had been a grad student studying in Poland, and I remembered the intense fervor of the average Pole's pro-American and anti-Soviet feelings. (Strangers on the street, deducing that I was an American, whispered to me that the US had better kill as many of those damned Vietcong Commies as possible.) In 1976 I was a fervent Carter supporter and was looking forward to voting Ford out of office, but when I read in the New York Times what Ford said in "clarification" of his remark, I immediately understoood what he'd been trying to say.

  • gottacook on September 20, 2012 6:03 PM:

    What I remember about the Ford-Carter debate that produced Ford's "gaffe" was the incredulous reaction of the panelist who'd been questioning him - I think it was Max Frankel of the NY Times. Did any of these other examples elicit such an immediate reaction on national TV?

  • DJ on September 20, 2012 7:48 PM:

    James Powell, the last line was meant to be read with a bit of snark/sarcasm attached. Perhaps I needed to put a tag on it. ;-)

    But to seriously address your question, there are three possibilities:

    1) Release would show that Romney did not meet the LDS Church's 10% tithing requirement (I think this is extremely unlikely), or

    2) Release would show that Romney took the 2008 amnesty offered to those who had illegal foreign bank accounts, or

    3) Release would show that Romney used every legal method of tax avoidance and ended up paying a politically embarrassing tax rate, if not a rate of 0%.