Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Blessings of the Post-Gaffe World

The demi-scandals of yesteryear have lost their bite.
February 2, 2020
Blessings of the Post-Gaffe World

We don’t really hear about Uncle Joe Biden being “wacky” much anymore. Attention has shifted from petty concerns about the inevitable unfortunate media appearances gone awry. If there is any focus to be given to candidates at their most vulnerable or ridiculous it is only the most patently bizarre or comical that elicit even a raised eyebrow—as opposed to that long-lost sense of cringe the average American would be subjected to when watching their would-be political leaders make fools of themselves in the punishing arena of public scrutiny. Presidential campaigns used to be undone by yells. Presidential campaigns used to be undone by windsurfing and tanks. Presidential campaigns used to be undone by shame. Presidential campaigns used to be completely undone by gaffes. That’s just not the case anymore.

Historical Campaign Ad: Windsurfing (Bush-Cheney '04)

It’s arguable that we’ve reached a threshold of media saturation and desensitization where, thanks to Donald Trump, the standard for concern or public outcry is significantly higher than before. This has allowed for a certain humanizing—making some space for the foibles and idiosyncrasies that candidates and their handlers used to work hard to hide.

Before, Biden’s ticks were red flags and made the butt of jokes. As recently as August 2019, the Washington Post was calling Biden the “Lamborghini of Gaffes.” But then, the Atlantic ran John Hendrickson’s intimate story on stuttering. The article is an investigation of Biden’s history as a stutterer, alongside Hendrickson’s reckoning with his own speech impediment. The profile had an effect on media coverage of the presidential race, and perhaps even on the ever-elusive “national conversation”: The usual cold-hearted horse-betting on how Biden’s habit of misspeaking would affect his chances was supplanted, at least for a time, with a warmer, more sympathetic and humane way of covering that aspect of the former vice president’s campaigning.

When was the last big, detrimental gaffe in a presidential campaign? It might have been Rick Perry’s infamous debate “Oops!” from 2012. One surprise of this year’s Democratic primary season has been that, as the field got more and more crowded, gaffes didn’t surge back as a tool to weed out the weaker contenders. Sure Bloomberg gripping a dog’s mouth is inexplicably odd, but is it disqualifying? Klobachur is still chugging along on the trail despite her salad-comb and abusive tendencies. Instead of cringe-y, Cory Booker’s silly dad-joke tweets came across as endearing and sweet in a genuine way. Kamala’s dancing and playlists had charm. Warren doesn’t so much have a plague of slip-ups as she does legitimate discrediting incidents—but strangely, the political atmosphere makes them somehow less harmful to her: If you can give it a nickname and make it a punchline but the subject of the joke doesn’t exhibit the expected display of humiliation or doesn’t lash back in defensiveness, is anyone really laughing?

Of course, there are still “gaffes” but they somehow lack the weight necessary to ruin a person. Blunders aren’t so much a reason for someone to be instantly “canceled” or “over,” they’re more and more just taken in stride. There’s a certain accepted humanity now: Candidates! They’re just like us! They have hiccups and it’s okay because we know that the demands of office are very different from the utter, exhausting madness of campaigning.

It could almost be called grace, the extending of forgiveness to candidates who trip over themselves—especially now that people have seen the gross alternative when individuals who are truly morally repugnant advance by overthrowing former standards of shame.

Hannah Yoest

Hannah Yoest is an editor and the art director of The Bulwark.