The 'gaffocracy' of campaigns does not serve democracy well

By Martin Schram

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Thursday, June 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama answers questions on the ongoing budget negotiations during a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, July 15, 2011. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Evan Vucci, AP

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The permanent activists of the Great American Gaffocracy — the party spin doctors and message massagers and the 24/7 news action figures whose strings they so expertly pull — can barely contain their glee.

Their jobs in our tabloid-driven politics and journalism are safe.

They just discovered Campaign 2012 will feature not just one, but two gaffe-capable presidential standard-bearers. Each has shown signs of being so eager to hit the ground running with a new message theme that he risks taking his first step firmly upon an upturned rake.

Bonk.

Mitt Romney, of course, was a given. A certified gaffer, Romney has gifted giddy Democratic operatives with ample fodder that made "Out of Touch Rich Guy" seem like his political signature.

But Barack Obama? Who knew? Celebrated as a silver-tongued communicator, President Obama showed he too could ad lib a gaffe that drowns out his new campaign message. On June 8, hoping to spotlight Republican failures to enact his plan to create public-sector jobs, Obama told reporters:

"The private sector is doing fine. Where we're seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government ... ."

The private sector is doing fine? Say what? One cardinal rule of politics is never try to sell ordinary people an idea they know in their gut isn't true. And every renter and mortgage payer knows family or friends who cannot find private-sector jobs.

Today's wired age of politics has begat a tabloidy industry of insiders: strategists who convert every opponent's goof into a gaffe; news-lite journalists who respond to spin doctors as reflexively as your leg jerks at your doctor's knee-tap. Even today's famous political journalists don't see their mission as substantively sorting campaign truths from lies. They prefer to predict the horserace by shoveling the horsestuff.

Obama's private-sector gaffe kicked off a pundit parade that marched across our 24/7 cable news well into the next week. Republicans aired a web ad, hoping to make Obama's gaffe a gift that keeps on giving. And Romney, emoting incredulity, made our screens seem like Alice's looking glass by asking: "Is he really that out of touch? I think he's defining what it means to be detached and out of touch with the American people."

This was a pot-calling-the-kettle-out-of-touch moment that demanded media perspective — but the media whiffed. Back on Feb. 1, Romney gave us what now seems like a mirror's image of Obama's later gaffe — with actions of the right and left reversed. "I'm not concerned about the very poor," Romney told CNN. "We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich, they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America — the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling."

Not concerned about the poor? Cable news recycled his snippet. Democrats rushed a web ad containing a blatantly unfair, untrue snapper: "Mitt Romney: Not concerned about the poor ... or the middle class."

Obama's and Romney's gaffes had this in common: The candidates seemed to validate their critics' claims. February's Romney sounded like a rich guy who doesn't feel real folks' pain. Friday's Obama sounded like a stereotypical liberal who doesn't feel private enterprise's problems and thinks bigger government must solve all our problems.

Good news: Finally this week, CNN's Christine Romans, whose analytical economic coverage is superb, fact-checked Obama's claim that the private sector is fine. He was partly right but also overblown.

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