The gaffe game

    Last Friday afternoon, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I committed a crime against nature by peeking at Twitter – and discovered that one of the presidential candidates had said something really awful.I’m not referring to President Obama’s errant six words about how “the private sector is doing fine.” No, this is about what Mitt Romney said a few hours later:”(Obama) wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”There it was: Romney said he’s fine with the waves of layoffs that have idled firemen, cops, and teachers. He said that we don’t need more firemen, cops, and teachers on the job.That’s way worse than what Obama said in his Friday news conference. Obama expressed himself poorly, in the midst of making a good argument. Romney expressed exactly what he meant to express, in the midst of making a bad argument.Here’s the full context of what Obama said. I’ve highlighted the sentence that detonated Republican heads all afternoon:”The truth of the matter is that, as I said we’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last two — 27 months; over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government, oftentimes cuts initiated by, you know, governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don’t have the same kind of flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in. And so, you know, if Republicans want to be helpful, if they really want to move forward and put people back to work, what they should be thinking about is how do we help state and local governments and how do we help the construction industry. Because the recipes that they’re promoting are basically the kinds of policies that would add weakness to — to the economy, would result in further layoffs, would not provide relief in the housing market, and would result, I think most economists estimate, in lower growth and fewer jobs, not more.”Anyone with a passably cognitive IQ can read that passage and understand what Obama was saying. The private sector is doing fine – when compared to the loss of jobs in the public sector. As media analyst Howard Kurtz remarked yesterday on CNN, “there wasn’t a journalist (in the room) who didn’t know what Obama meant.” Indeed, during the past few months, Obama’s campaign ads have consistently pointed out that the economy is not fine, that even though it has slowly and notably improved, it still needs to do better.But verbo-politically, Obama blew it. On the gaffe front, he has no margin for error. With the Republicans piranhas circling in the water, there’s no way he can ever afford to utter an errant sentence. His big mistake was to put a period after the word “fine.” If he had added a second clause – say, “relative to the public sector” – the piranhas would never have been fed.Hey, that’s politics in our 24/7 digital world. That’s how the gaffe game is played; both sides take advantage of the rules. And so, this morning, we have the burnished GOP talking point in all its IQ-challenged simplicity. From my email box: “President Obama said the private sector is doing fine. (He thinks) that the last jobs report is ‘doing fine.'”Look again at Obama’s full remarks. Where does he even suggest that the May jobs report is evidence that we’re “doing fine?”Most importantly, Obama was making a valid point: While the private sector has steadily added jobs since the economy bottomed out, progress has nonetheless been slowed by the ongoing job losses in state and local government. Therefore, in order to address the current jobs crisis, Washington has no choice but to step in and invest. His jobs plan, announced last autumn, would rehire laid off cops, firemen, teachers, and other public workers – and create jobs for construction workers, who would be put to work repairing bridges and highways. But Republicans, naturally, refuse to support this jobs plan (as I mentioned in my Sunday newspaper column). Obama thinks that Republicans would help their fellow Americans by supporting it.Obama’s broader point, of course, is that government action will help the economy – just as it did in 2010. As columnist E. J. Dionne smartly notes this morning: “Douglas Elmendorf, the widely respected director of the Congressional Budget Office, told a congressional hearing last week that 80 percent of economic experts surveyed by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business agreed that the stimulus got the unemployment rate lower at the end of 2010 than it would have been otherwise. Only four percent disagreed. The stimulus, CBO concluded, added as many as 3.3 million jobs during the second quarter of 2010, and it may have kept us from lapsing back into recession.”So Obama’s errant sentence (or, more precisely, the attention paid to his errant sentence) obscured his valid argument. By contrast, Romney said exactly what he meant to say – that government action during a crisis is wrong, that idling public workers is good for the American people, and that what we really need is fewer cops, firemen, and teachers.But Romney apparently won this verbal duel. Because, in today’s reductive politics, if you utter a gaffe even in the midst of articulating a far superior position, you lose. So goes the game.And so ends another ephemeral news cycle. Are you exhausted yet? By now, you may well be feeling like this. ——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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