When is a gaffe not a gaffe? These days, almost every political miscue is labeled a gaffe. By overusing the word, I think we're devaluing it, and I think we're being unfair to politicians.
Item: Paul Ryan claims to have run a marathon in less than three hours. The Democrats just loved this one. To anyone who has ever seen a marathon, much less run in one, the boast (made to a radio talk show host who asked him about his best time) was just incredible. That is, it was so ridiculous that it couldn't be true. So why, as Salon's Joan Walsh asked shortly after, would Ryan say something so obviously implausible? Her answer: He thought he could get away with it. Just another lie from a guy who likes to tell them.
But I don't think that's the most obvious answer. Paul Ryan may be guilty of lying about policy, but he has no record of lying about his personal life or his accomplishments. And more importantly, he is not an exaggerator, an action that comes from personal anxiety rather than partisan malice. Policy lying is all too common in politics and I don't condone it — hell, I left Washington because of it — but it appears to be an epigenetic characteristic of the homo politicus.
So what's the answer to Walsh's question? The answer is that Ryan simply misremembered. In the chaos of everything he has to cram into his head, a few neurons misfired. There's just no way this was a deliberate boast because it was so obviously untrue. If Ryan had decided to make a calculated boast, it was a stupid one, because it was so easily verifiable. I just think he made a mistake.
But politicians under the microscope aren't allowed any deviation. Ryan's mistake added to the narrative that he lies for personal gain. By immediately assuming motivations are bad, partisans turn human mistakes into gaffes.
Poor Joe Biden. Google him and "gaffes" and several hundred thousand results pop up instantly. But most "gaffes" attributed to him are simply non-entities. Throwaway lines said in the heat of the moment. Biden does have a tendency to exaggerate, but his biographers, both critical and sympathetic, believe it stems from the combination of his extroversion, his tragic personal history, and utter lack of guilelessness. That gaffer is a charmer who lacks a filter. His "gaffes" haven't really affected the campaign. (Lest you say he pre-empted Obama on gay marriage, recall that he was asked his opinion by an interlocutor and didn't bring it up himself.)
So what is a gaffe? Is it an error? Is it a lie? Is it, a la Michael Kinsley, when a politician accidentally tells the truth? (Clearly, not in this case with Ryan.) Is it a malicious exaggeration? Or does something become a gaffe when the other side latches on to it and exploits it for partisan advantage? Think of it this way: If you're a shortstop and miss a ground ball, and a runner scores, no one, aside from the statisticians, will remember it unless it materially affects the outcome of the game, which is something we can't know at the time. In the case of politics, partisans do everything possible to turn mistakes into things that materially affect the outcome of campaigns. That's fine for them to do, but we ought to be aware of it, and I think we ought to give politicians a little more wiggle room to be human before we so easily judge them by their less than finest moments.