It's been quite the election cycle for one of the most entertaining hobbies in politics: gaffe collecting. Whether you giggle at Mitt Romney's "Amercia" iPhone app or guffaw at Barack Obama's insistence that a Supreme Court decision overturning a law passed by a "strong majority" in Congress would be "an unprecedented, extraordinary step," gaffe-wrangling can bring delight to partisans and non-partisans alike. At times, it's the only entertainment value we can get from the marathon that is our electoral process.
Not all gaffes are created equal, of course. Some are the result of rushed responses to questions, inconsequential spoonerisms, and silly confusion over names and places. Others, however, are less humorous, such as the one recently committed by the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Missouri. Todd Akin opposes abortion in all instances, a distinctly minority but well-established position in conservative circles, and was asked to defend opposing an abortion in the case of a woman who conceived through rape. This should not be an unexpected question for a politician holding this position, but Akin managed to ramble himself into serious trouble in his race to defeat incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill, whose seat had been considered the most endangered in the current Senate.
"It seems to me first of all, from what I understand from doctors — that's really rare," Akin told Charles Jaco of the St. Louis Fox affiliate KTVI. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
The more you gaffe, the safer you are.
Unsurprisingly, this remark set off a firestorm of criticism across the political spectrum. Democrats from Barack Obama on down took the opportunity to tie Republicans to Akin's suggestion that claims of rape might be less than legitimate if the victims became pregnant from the assault — which happens in 5 percent of rapes, and according to at least one researcher, has more of a chance of occurring than in consensual sex. Mitt Romney and National Republican Senatorial Committee chair John Cornyn suggested that Akin needed to strongly consider withdrawing from the race. Talk show host Sean Hannity all but told Akin that he would cost Republicans not just the Senate seat in Missouri, but a victory there for the Romney ticket as well. Karl Rove's American Crossroads announced that it would pull all of its Senate-related advertising from Missouri if Akin stayed on the ballot, as did the NRSC later in the day.
Contrast this with the reception given Joe Biden for his similarly unamusing statement in Danville, Va., about what a Romney presidency would mean for Democrats in the state. After first getting confused about what state he was actually in, telling the crowd that they could help Democrats "take North Carolina again," Biden suggested that a Romney presidency would somehow usher in a return to slavery. "Romney wants to let the — he said in the first hundred days he's going to let the big banks once again write their own rules, 'unchain Wall Street,'" Biden said, and then shifted to a Southern patois to add, "They're going to put y'all back in chains."
This, too, caused an eruption of outrage … but mainly from Republicans. Obama insisted that his running mate had been "taken out of context," until he finally was told what Biden said, and how. At that point, Obama conceded to Entertainment Tonight that Biden's phrasing was "a distraction," but that he had no problem with the vice president's sentiment. Some media outlets called for Biden and the Obama campaign to apologize — the editorial board of the reliably-liberal Boston Globe was a notable example — but no top Democrats demanded Biden's removal from the ticket.
What can we learn from these two missteps about how a politician can weather a storm of his own making? Three factors come into play:
1. Timing is everything
Republicans reacted quickly to distance themselves from Akin, in part because of the content of the remarks, but also because of a looming ballot deadline. Even though Akin won the nomination in a primary two weeks ago, the state Republican Party could still replace Akin — at least until 5 p.m. CT on Tuesday. The looming deadline marks a point of no return. Had Akin offered his views on the relative legitimacy of rape claims and the ability of women to purge hostile sperm a week later, it would be much more difficult to replace him; in fact, it would take a court order. Under those conditions, would organizations like the NRSC be as willing to cut Akin off and lose Missouri? Possibly, but more than likely they would have found less drastic ways to express their distance and displeasure.
In contrast, despite the speculation that arose after Biden's latest controversial statement, there is no practical way to replace Biden on the Democratic ticket short of a medical emergency. In order to make a change like that, the Obama administration would have had to prepare the political environment for months, easing Biden out at a time when it would not have looked like a desperation move. When Sarah Palin publicly called for Obama to drop Biden, that route was all but taken off the table.
2. Have somewhere to hide
Biden had another advantage over Akin — he could get off the campaign trail to let the anger die down. That's also true for politicians who act as surrogates for other candidates; DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz reportedly got benched when the Obama campaign discovered that her media appearances made her the least-liked surrogate on their roster. Unfortunately, Akin is the GOP candidate in Missouri's Senate race, not a surrogate or a running mate. If he wants to win, he has to run — and that means no hiding.
3. The more you gaffe, the safer you are
That may sound counterintuitive, but consider the lack of attention to Biden gaffes at this stage of his career. The media is so used to Biden gaffes that only the true aficionados even collect them anymore. Had Akin been as well known and the media as inured to his verbal missteps, Akin's comment about "legitimate rape" might not have caused as much outrage.
After being caught plagiarizing British Labour leader Neil Kinnock's speeches in 1987 — right down to adopting Kinnock's family history as his own — Biden has hardly relented in his gaffe production. A few years ago, Biden tried adopting an Indian accent to describe his customer experience at 7-Eleven. Even in this past week, Biden mistook the century in which we live, asking, "[W]here's it written we cannot lead the world in the 20th century in making automobiles?" The Los Angeles Times reported last week that the White House stopped providing transcripts from Biden events two months ago; Politico reported at the same time that Biden's handlers try wheedling the media into editing Biden's statements to cover his gaffes.
Let's hope that doesn't become a trend. Those of us who like our misstep menageries would have to occupy ourselves with other amusements during election cycles — like betting on how long candidates can go without taking questions from the non-entertainment press.