Friday, September 19, 2008

Making It Worse

Whatever the reason John McCain bobbled his answer to the repeated question of whether or not he’d invite Jose Zapatero, the prime minister of Spain, to the White House, his campaign seems to be making it worse.

In itself mishearing or misunderstanding a question isn’t the worse thing in the world, though being too proud to ask for the question to be repeated and going with the assumption that the mystery leader must be some Hugo Chavez type character out of Woody Allen’s Bananas does suggest a certain recklessness of character.

The McCain campaign might simply have said that he was on the phone and didn’t understand. But they’re obviously unwilling to do that since they’ve staked so much of his candidacy on his foreign policy chops.

In any case, a consensus appears to be emerging that the really shocking lapse was not the original gaffe but how the campaign chose to deal with it. Rather than copping to the goof, they decided to stick to the nonsensical statements and risk, should McCain win in November, significant damage to our relations with a major NATO ally.

Campaigns of both parties make these kinds of goofs — after all, without any evidence to the contrary, candidates are human and prone to gaffes, blunders, oops moments, and flaps. And just as that’s one of the oldest axioms in politics, so is the artful extrication from the gaffe, and that often is more telling than the mistake itself. If Sen. McCain’s campaign had said, “He misunderstood the question, and of course he meant to say [fill in the blank].” Over and done, it’s a one-liner on Leno and it’s on to the next one and the one after that. But no, they got defensive and said, “Yes, he meant to say that he doesn’t want to invite the Prime Minister of Spain to the White House because he’s no different than those other thugs in Latin America.”

I may not be the most objective observer, but it seems that the Republicans are more likely to refuse to back down from a gaffe than the Democrats. That’s because they operate on the theory that they never make mistakes, their leader is always wise and strong, and we really shouldn’t question his motives or actions because we really don’t know everything he knows. They have perfected the art of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (with or without lipstick), and even if it makes them look foolish, they stick to their guns because to back down would be to admit that they’re capable of error, and there can’t be any cracks in that facade. If there is, then the entire premise of their views can be called into question. I think they get this from hanging around with fundamentalist Christians, who are not known for their tolerance for diverse views or questioning authority. Dogma, after all, is dogma, and whether or not there’s proof that evolution occurred or John McCain understood perfectly a question from someone speaking with a Spanish accent doesn’t matter. The attitude fits neatly on a bumper sticker: He said it, I believe it, end of story. In addition, they have based many a campaign on exploiting the gaffes of their opponents and blowing them out of proportion as to turn a soap bubble into the Hindenburg. If they were to concede a mistake, they remove that element from their arsenal and are left with discussing and debating the issues like the economy, and they know they’ll lose on that.

It’s all well and good for the campaign stump; slips like Sarah Palin saying the “Palin-McCain administration” can be chalked up to excitement, but gaffes like the dissing of a NATO ally because the candidate made a mistake and refused to acknowledge it once again calls into question the judgment of the people both on the ticket and running it. What would that have done to our foreign policy if it wasn’t candidate McCain but President McCain? “Oops” doesn’t quite cover it then, but neither does “he meant to do that.” It just makes it worse.