They are a politician’s worst nightmare: the off-the-cuff statements that get blown up out of all proportion. All presidents do it, but as the campaign intensifies and election day comes closer, the last thing the president of the United States needed was a clanger. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
There was that astonishing moment in the 1976 presidential debates between then-president Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter when Ford blurted out a jaw-dropping remark: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” This was, of course, before Lech Walesa, before Pope John Paul II and before Solidarity (the Polish version) – and while there were tens of thousands of Soviet troops and tanks in bases inside Poland.
Thinking back on it years later, after voters had exchanged a Ford for a Carter, the former spoke on TV with the moderator of that debate, veteran Public Broadcast System newsman Jim Lehrer, who asked him simply “Why did you say that?” Twice.
After two decades of replaying that career-ending miscue over in his mind, Ford told Lehrer “There's no question I did not adequately explain what I was thinking. I felt very strongly, and I, of course, do so today, that regardless of the number of Soviet armoured divisions in Poland, the Russians would never dominate the Polish spirit. That's what I should have said. I simply left out the fact that at that time in 1976, the Russians had about 10 to 15 divisions in Poland.” That about sums it up: shoulda, woulda, coulda. Didn’t.
But his verbal pratfall ran in sync with a growing popular impression that, well, Gerald Ford just wasn’t bright enough to be president. Picked by Richard Nixon when his first vice president, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign in the midst of his bribery scandal, then elevated to the presidency itself when Nixon was forced to resign after his own set of career-ending problems, Ford was becoming the butt of jokes on the satirical national television show, Saturday Night Live. Ford was played by comedian Chevy Chase as a smiling bumbler who fell down flights of steps (something that had actually happened on live television), got entangled with his own feet rising from a chair, and then covered with medical syringes after a sublimely miscarried campaign asking Americans to receive swine flu vaccinations.
The crucial point was that Ford’s debate stumble wasn’t just a bolt out of the sky. Rather, it reinforced growing national perceptions that he wasn’t up to the job. He was likeable enough and a breath of fresh air after Nixon, to be sure, but he just didn’t do his homework – and maybe he couldn’t. Compared to the sombre, studious Jimmy Carter, it would be no sale.
Fast-forward to 1992 and George HW Bush was running for a second term as president as a man whose resumé seemed to make him purpose-built for the job. But Bush’s Achilles heel was his difficulty in connecting with the cares of the average citizen. Eschewing George Burns’ famous aphorism that “if you can just fake sincerity you’ll be a success in Hollywood”, Bush was memorably captured on video going into a typical supermarket and being absolutely gobsmacked by a laser scanner that read grocery prices and allowed the purchaser to sign for his items with a signature via an electric pen thingy.
The New York Times’s Andrew Rosenthal described the scene in February 1992: “Then he grabbed a quart of milk, a light bulb and a bag of candy and ran them over an electronic scanner. The look of wonder flickered across his face again as he saw the item and price registered on the cash register screen."
“This is for checking out?” said Bush. “I just took a tour through the exhibits here,” he told the grocers’ national convention later. “Amazed by some of the technology.”
Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, assured reporters that he had seen the president in a grocery store. A year or so ago. In Kennebunkport (the Bush’s summer home on the bay). “Some grocery stores began using electronic scanners as early as 1976, and the devices have been in general use in American supermarkets for a decade.”
Among other missteps about how economic concerns affected the average citizen, it was this moment in the checkout line, replayed endlessly on television, in combination with those other negative empathy moments in his debates with challenger Bill Clinton that sealed Bush’s fate. Clinton could, famously, feel the voters’ pain, while Bush appeared oblivious to it.
And so we come to this year’s duo – Barack Obama and Mitt Romney - and their mortal combat with meaning and metaphor. Romney, of course, has that “born with a silver spoon in his mouth” shtick honed to perfection: his problem is in those statements that undercut rather than build up his empathy quotient. In a time of economic difficulty, gushing to a crowd that “corporations are people too” and that he “loves firing people” seems to be a reach to the subconscious Romney whose stock in trade at his Bain Capital firm was in sweating assets and wringing out excess labour costs in the companies Bain had acquired.
Okay, I know this is not precisely the more nuanced point Romney was meaning to make, but phraseology like this seems to go to type – a heartless capitalist who doesn’t give a fig for the average Joe. So wait for these to be replayed endlessly on television in Obama attack ads, once the rabbit punching in the campaign really starts in earnest, after Labour Day in early September.
And Obama? Well, he got himself caught out the other day and the White House was the unwitting set-up agent for it. Forced to call in reporters to explain his economic policies after some really disappointing data on unemployment and job creation in the most recent month - as well as some off-message statements from none other than Bill Clinton, presumably acting on Obama’s behalf - the president was doing one of his bravura performances. He was explaining his proposals, sector by sector, when he let loose that “the private sector is doing fine”.
This apparently was meant to refer to the impressive cash hoards many major companies have built up during the current economic unpleasantness, as well as the fact that private- sector employment actually is up, in contrast to the faltering public sector.
But his off-hand, flip comment too has now been recorded for posterity – and his campaign will have to brace itself for the inevitable Republican reaction ads. Within hours, Obama had already been torched by Republicans as being totally out of touch about the state of the economy, attempting to paint him as one of those snooty Harvard types who doesn’t understand the real pressures faced by real businesses and therefore voting businessmen and women.
This bobble plays into Romney’a own rhetoric that argues Obama is just one of those European-style socialists who is hopelessly out of touch with the free-enterprise system. It even allowed Romney a bit of closure on his own off-pitch declaration that “corporations are people”. Romney said in a mid-day rally in Iowa, “For the president of the United States to stand up and say the private sector is doing fine is going to go down in history as an extraordinary miscalculation and misunderstanding by a president who’s out of touch.”
Sharper still, House of Representatives Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor dived into it at a press conference sneering, “Are you kidding?” And then Republican senator Mitch McConnell told Fox TV News, “The president must be on another planet. To argue that the private sector is in good shape, it seems to me, the president is completely disconnected from reality.”
And then Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a potential Romney running mate, at that gathering of Iowa politicos, rubbed a bit more salt into Obama’s wound. “The private sector is so foreign to him he might need a passport to go visit. He might need a translator to talk to people in the private sector.” A cynic might see in that a kind of veiled effort to reach out and touch all those bitter-ender “birthers” on behalf of Romney.
In an effort to walk back from this self-inflicted wound, Obama came back fighting, explaining that yes, he really was aware of the country’s economic weaknesses, saying that’s “the reason I had a press conference. That’s why I spent yesterday, the day before yesterday, this past week, this past month and this past year talking about how we can make the economy stronger. The economy is not doing fine. There are too many people out of work. The housing market is still weak, too many homes (are) under water and that’s precisely why I asked Congress to start taking some steps that can make a difference.”
Too late already, maybe. This blunder is now recorded on video, on the internet and in print everywhere already. It is ready to be rolled out at a moment’s notice. Picture, if you will, an ad as prepared by the Republican National Committee or perhaps a new superPAC that goes by the name of “People United to Beat Up Wimpy Exotic European-style Socialists Who Think They Should Be President of America” and contrasts an older Obama statement about greedy rich people with “the private sector is doing fine” while the voice-over narrator intones: “Well, which Obama can you trust? What will he do next?”
The real challenge will come as the campaign gets hotter, and the candidates inevitably become stressed, tired and increasingly prone to miscues. Voters will certainly see and hear more such things from both Romney and Obama. At that point it will be up to those same voters to make up their minds about whether they see a sympathetic but exhausted candidate who is sometimes prone to understandable human error - or if they see a man who in an unguarded moment lets slip a statement that holds up an accurate mirror to the darker recesses of the soul. DM
- Obama clarifies: Economy 'not doing fine' at Politico
- Private sector is doing fine'? Obama retracts as GOP mocks at the Christian Science Monitor
- Obama gets grief for saying private sector 'fine' at the AP
- A bad week for Obama and the Democrats, Dan Balz column in the Washington Post
- Private sector 'doing fine'? Romney pounces on Obama remark in the Los Angeles Times
- Debating Our Destiny at the PBS website
- Romney's views more harmful than his gaffes at MSN
- Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed, an Andrew Rosenthal column in the New York Times back in 1992
Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama pauses while speaking in the White House Press Briefing Room in Washington, June 8, 2012. (REUTERS/Larry Downing)