Rubio and the Tyranny of the Fatal Gaffe

Make no mistake: If Marco Rubio’s campaign has suddenly burst into flames because of his odd, preprogrammed debate performance last week, we will not shed a tear. But we can lament, in a general and nonpartisan way, the latest example of a depressing political trend: the fatal gaffe.

The fatal gaffe is the phenomenon of a perfectly viable political candidate being torpedoed by a single mistake. Recent examples include:

  • Gov. Rick Perry forgetting the third government department he was going to wipe off the earth (“Oops.”)
  • Howard Dean’s unnerving rebel yell at a 2004 campaign rally
  • John Kerry’s two-faced explanation of his position on an Iraq war funding bill: “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

It’s not a new phenomenon (some may remember Ed Muskie’s tearful—and campaign-ending—defense of his wife in front of the cameras in 1972), but it does seem to happen more frequently in the social media age. It’s why leading candidates are dogged by spies with video cameras, just hoping for the next unguarded, viral moment.

It’s a sad development in politicking for two reasons:

  1. It’s yet another way of trivializing our elections. It further reduces them to “gotcha” moments and a game-show mentality: “Bzzzt! Sorry, wrong answer, but thanks for playing.”
  2. It promotes the very thing voters say they hate about politicians—their caution and artificiality. What candidate is going to be open, honest, and straightforward with voters if they know that any spontaneous misstep could be their last?

We should allow candidates (and presidents) the occasional human flaw. And the fatal gaffe is an absurd premise to begin with. Did Perry’s brain cramp in a stressful situation really disqualify him from being president? Did Dean’s irrational exuberance mean he could never be “presidential?” And do Republican voters really think that Marco Rubio, who has excelled in every previous debate, is suddenly no longer fit to lead their party because of one off night? (It’s even more absurd because debating skills aren’t really a qualification for the presidency. Unlike in Great Britain, where a prime minister must regularly engage with Parliament, in the U.S. policy arguments between the president and his foes generally take place remotely, via speeches, spokespeople, and press releases.)

People will argue that this presidential minefield we have laid is a test of character and the fitness of a candidate for the relentless pressures of high office. But that’s a facile and false rationalization. One mistake does not prove anyone’s character.

In an ideal world, our elections should be substantive debates over serious issues, not a gladiatorial blood sport. But this is far from an ideal world, of course, and we confess we don’t have any real solutions here; we’re just railing. Perhaps we can impotently suggest that the mainstream media be more careful about piling on after every mistake. And (for a number of reasons) we believe the two major parties should talk seriously about moving the first primaries to May or June instead of February; if we had less free time, perhaps we could all stay a bit more focused.

For all of that, if Republican voters want to toss away one of the most articulate spokesmen for their vile conservative agenda, we have no objection. All the better for the good guys. But let’s hope Democrats will not be inclined to make the same mistake.

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