The arguably most damaging verbal flub of the 2012 election season — Mitt Romney's covertly recorded comments to wealthy donors that 47 percent of Americans are government-addicted moochers — wasn't even a classic inadvertent gaffe: He meant to say it, and even revisited the theme after he lost the presidential race, griping that President Obama won re-election by handing out "gifts" to young, minority, and female voters. But gaffes of a more traditional nature played an unusually active role in the 2012 election — starting long before the calendar flipped to 2012 — helping define Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat and Vice President Joe Biden as a buffoon, and very possibly costing Republicans control of the Senate. Here, nine of the most consequential political gaffes of 2012:
1. A key Romney adviser forecasts an "Etch-a-Sketch" moment
On March 21, just as Romney was on the verge of wrapping up the Republican nomination, top adviser Eric Fehnstrom went on CNN and seemed to celebrate Romney's reputation for opportunistic flip-flopping. Asked if the primaries hadn't pushed Romney too far to the Right, Fenhstrom answered: "Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again." The Etch-a-Sketch imagery haunted Romney the rest of the campaign (although he very skillfully did "shake it up and start all over again" in his first debate against Obama).
2. Senate hopeful Todd Akin mangles "legitimate rape" and biology
Republicans had justifiably high hopes of seizing control of the Senate in November, but the wheels started coming off on Aug. 19, when Todd Akin, a Missouri Republican facing vulnerable incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D), was asked about his opposition to all abortions, including those conducted after cases of rape. He memorably told the local TV interviewer that pregnancy from rape is "really rare," because "if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down." His poll numbers sank and never recovered, and McCaskill won re-election.
3. Senate hopeful Richard Mourdock says rape babies are "what God intended"
After Akin's blunder, other Republicans with similar hardline view on abortion started getting the rape question. Richard Mourdock, who defeated shoo-in GOP incumbent Sen. Richard Lugar in Indiana's Republican primary, was so queried at an Oct. 23 debate against Democratic challenger Rep. Joe Donnelly. It didn't go well. Mourdock said that, after struggling with the rape-abortion question for a long time, "I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." His slim lead disappeared in the polls, and, with it, any hope the GOP had of retaking the Senate. Donnelly won.
4. Romney says he's "not concerned about the very poor"
The Republican presidential nominee had his own share of gaffes on the campaign trail, many of them tied to his seeming inability to artfully answer questions relating to his massive wealth. So his consultants must have been "gnashing their teeth," said Washington Monthly's Ed Kilgore, when in a Feb. 1 interview on CNN, Romney told Soledad O'Brien, "I'm not concerned about the very poor." He added, "we have a safety net" for the poor, and he wasn't worried about the very rich, either. Still, said Kilgore, presciently, "it's this tone-deafness that makes a lot of Republicans nervous about Mitt Romney as a general-election candidate."
5. Romney likes "being able to fire people"
On Jan. 9, as he was facing intra-Republican fire over job losses at companies taken over by his former company, Bain Capital, Romney chose an unfortunate way to describe his prescription for health insurance reform. Your insurer should be determined by your job, he said, so "if you don't like what they do, you could fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." The "I like being able to fire people" part of that quote, combined with the satisfaction on his face when he said it, helped perpetuate an image of Romney as a heartless capitalist out of touch with average Americans.
6. Joe Biden suggests Obama has "buried the middle class"
The vice president stuck his foot in his mouth, possibly admitted an awkward truth, and certainly did no favors to Obama at an Oct. 2 campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C. Explaining why Romney's plan to cut taxes on the rich would burden the middle class, Biden said: "How they can justify — how they can justify raising taxes on the middle class that's been buried the last four years. How in Lord's name can they justify raising their taxes with these tax cuts?" The problem, of course, is that Obama has been president for most of the past four years. Coincidentally or not, Obama didn't win North Carolina.
7. Romney trash-talks the London Olympics... in London
Romney's résumé includes an impressive stint turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, but includes very little foreign-policy experience. To boost his international credentials, he visited some of America's closest allies — Britain, Israel, and Poland — during a week-long trip in July. Things got off to a rocky start in London when he unintentionally lobbed a number of minor insults at our former colonial overlords. The most damaging was his questioning of how prepared London was to host the summer Olympics, saying he saw several "disconcerting" signs. That earned him public rebukes from Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, both Conservatives, and some pointed ribbing from Obama in the October debates.
8. Obama tells Russia he'll have "more flexibility" after the election
The president wasn't entirely gaffe-free during the campaign. The indiscretion that haunted him the longest was a dreaded hot-mic comment he made to then–Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at a March 26 summit in South Korea. Obama and Medvedev — who was about to switch jobs with then–Prime Minister Vladimir Putin — were discussing a number of issues, including a U.S. missile defense plan to which Russia objects. "Give me space," Obama said, unaware his microphone was on. "This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility" to deal with missile defense." Romney pounced, saying Obama is "telling us one thing and doing something else." He added, "I don't think he can recover from it." (He did, though Republicans brought it up for the rest of the campaign.)
9. Karl Rove challenges Fox's election-night math
This one isn't so much a gaffe as a general-purpose blunder. Rove, who became a Fox News commentator and Wall Street Journal columnist after George W. Bush's presidency, played a prominent role in Fox's 2012 election-night coverage. When the network's decision desk called Ohio for Obama, sealing his re-election, Rove disagreed passionately, arguing that it was too soon to call the state. This led host Megyn Kelly to walk down the hall to discuss the Ohio call with Fox's vote tabulators, and an embarrassing detour into partisanship for the GOP-leaning network. The dispute was a hit to Rove's stature and his pocketbook — Fox benched him after the election (at least for a spell).
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why is the Pentagon stuffing caves in Norway full of tanks?
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The one thing the New Atheists get right about religion
- 3 horrific inaccuracies in Homeland's depiction of Islamabad
- The U.S. government is actually trouncing Ebola. When will it get credit?
- Syrian women know how to defeat ISIS
- Why America needs more billionaires
- Gamergate has backfired spectacularly on its nincompoop perpetrators
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
Subscribe to the Week