Everyone misspeaks in public from time to time. It really is unfair to pick on politicians for the occasional gaffe. But it is fair to ask at what point such gaffes are valid signs of a fundamental problem. I think Dan Quayle simply needed to stick to the prepared statements—he did not “wing it” very well, but he kept trying, and slipped repeatedly on his inherent inability to compose cogent remarks on the fly.
But Romney is beginning to show some serious problems. Never mind his 47% statement, he was arguably playing to his crowd. But his recent remarks about being unable to open the windows in an airliner are very troubling.
This is the kind of basic factoid stuff we all should know even if we only learned it from movies. There is a reason the windows on an airliner can’t be opened and most of us know this.
Two things: either he skipped that part of childhood and adolescence when the rest of us learned this or he’s cracking under campaign pressure and just letting his mouth run without his brain in gear.
It’s a question. This isn’t like George H.W. Bush’s ignorance over the laser scanner at the grocery store check-out counter—that was new technology and I think he was unfairly beat up about that—but more in line with basic ignorance coming from a man with a lot of education (of a particular sort) and a lot of time spent on planes.
But let me leave off. As far as I’m concerned, Romney is a clever man but not a smart one. Hegel talked about such people, the clever ones who seem intelligent because they can fake it, but really have no depth or true understanding. This is not necessarily a detriment for a president depending on who his handlers are. I don’t think Calvin Coolidge was smart, just clever (and clever enough to say very little). Go back over the list of past presidents and there are a number you could identify like that. (I think Nixon was an interesting case of a smart man who relied too much on cleverness.) But we don’t usually see this until after they’re in office. Campaigning is generally an exercise of cleverness, but there’s usually a modicum of intelligence in charge.
In the case of people like Todd Akin, there’s no question. He is a genuinely unintelligent man. Certainly not very reflective and possibly one of the most incurious politicians in recent memory. He’s clever enough to have maintained a career in politics for a couple of decades now. But when you listen to his pronouncements, even if you agree with them (if you do), and break them down, you see he’s only parroting a kind of semi-urban folk wisdom without any obvious comprehension what some of the words mean. He seems to have no idea what “socialism” is (this isn’t unique, I wonder how many people do know what it is, especially in politics) and his grasp of anything relevant to women is positively 19th Century. He gets away with it because he reifies the prejudices of his constituents, which is politically expedient and morally vacuous. Sometimes, it seems to me, it is the duty of a politician to tell his constituents when they have it all wrong. (Yes, I realize this could get said politician voted out of office, but I said duty not CYA.)
Still, I don’t know why anyone in this state, at least, is surprised. Akin has been spouting stuff like that for years. I was only surprised that he said what he said about “legitimate rape” quite so candidly, but I’m not surprised that he believes that nonsense.
I can understand why the GOP began pressuring him to step down, but really, they have only reaped what they’ve sown. Implicitly, they’ve been backing some version of this for years, and it has become wired into their politics. They likely, many of them, believe something similar to what Akin said, but they are generally more clever than Akin and know not to say it right out like that. He has exposed them, though, for anyone willing to look.
Now Newt Gingrich, the Party shill, has come to Akin’s defense, and what is his defense? “Anyone can make a stupid remark. It’s unfair to castigate him for it. If we went by that standard, Joe Biden would never be vice president.”
When Dan Quayle made his famous gaffe about minds being terrible wastes, everyone made fun of him for the tongue-twisted way he said it, but I think most people knew what he meant. When Joe Biden makes a bone-headed remark, we can step back and recognize that he didn’t mean that but this other thing. That’s the nature of gaffes.
So, when Gingirch says it was a stupid thing to say, what does he mean? What would Akin understand that to mean? That it was, in itself, stupid—and therefore wrong—or was it just stupid that he said it?
The problem here is, if you look at Akin’s record, it’s clear that he did mean what he said. It wasn’t a gaffe. He’s sorry that people were offended, but he hasn’t retracted or clarified his statement. He believes that.
This is different.
And, if you look at the legislative record of the GOP over the last couple of decades, it seems likely many of them believe something like it, too. That wasn’t a gaffe.