As Mitt Romney walked toward his motorcade Tuesday morning in Warsaw, Poland, Washington Post reporter Philip Rucker yelled a question in his direction: "What about your gaffes?"
Rucker didn't specify which gaffes, but 4,500 miles away, his Post colleague Eugene Robinson wrote in that morning's paper on a few that had become media fixations during Romney’s six-day overseas trip, which he dubbed "gaffepalooza."
Whether at home or abroad, presidential candidates' so-called gaffes -- and the media's preoccupation with each inartfully phrased or impolitic remark -- have defined the 2012 election. Gaffes get tweeted, blogged, and reported. Cable pundits declare them game-changers. And rival campaigns amplify them through any means possible. When that's done, the story becomes whether the campaign gaffed in cleaning up its gaffe.
Reporters complain that Romney's too robotic and Obama's too detached. But given that media's extensive coverage of gaffes so far, including at The Huffington Post, the chances of unscripted moments or off-the-cuff question-and-answer sessions seem likely to grow more remote from now until November. Reporters, in short, may be facilitating the very reality they detest.
"The energy of the press corps is to find the silliest and most twistable thing said on any given day and run with that," said longtime Republican consultant Steve Schmidt. "And the end product is that candidates are going to be more closed off from the press."
More than most, Schmidt understands the increasingly unbalanced choice between close-scripted politics and free-wheeling campaigning. Managing Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, he was tasked with buttoning up a shoot-from-the-hip politician.
"The accessibility that John McCain was famous for over the course of an eight-year period went from being a huge asset in 2000 to enormous liability in 2008," Schmidt recalled. "The conclusion everyone came to was that it was absolutely impossible to deliver a message to the American people when you handed a microphone over to the audience -- with 1 out of 3 questioners who were crazy -- or, two, being surrounded by a bunch of very young reporters on the campaign plane who ... were interested in asking a question to elicit the most embarrassing answer."
The 2012 cycle has only made that calculation easier, Schmidt and other campaign vets insisted. It's not just that younger reporters looking to make a splash are populating the bus. It's that a Balkanized media landscape has changed the way the press operates.
"I don't think politicians collectively today make any more gaffes than 2008, or 2004, or 2000, or '96 or '92," said Jonathan Prince, who was John Edwards' deputy campaign manager in 2008 Democratic presidential primary. "I think one thing has changed: it's easier for the press and opposing campaigns (and their super PAC affiliates) to discover gaffes and easier -- and faster -- for them to spread, or be promulgated."
The word gaffe is often confused for the term "gaff," or penny-gaff, which described a 19th century makeshift theater that offered cheap, mindless and often vulgar entertainment. The 2012 election has, at times, resembled a political version of that meaning: a non-stop gaffe-a-thon, in which candidates' remarks -- quite often clipped -- drive the day’s news until the next made-for-cable flap.
Political gaffes can get significant airtime, even as multiple fact-checkers conclude lines were taken out of context, such as with Obama’s July 13 remark that “if you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that.”
Fox News has since discussed Obama's remark 81 times, according to a July 31 search using the media monitoring service TV Eyes. The comment came up a dozen times on morning show "Fox & Friends," and several times on each of Fox's top-rated prime time programs.
“I think Obama has made the gaffe of the year when he said if you created a business, you didn't build it,” conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News’s “Special Report.”
MSNBC mentioned the "didn't build it" fracas 43 times, albeit often to criticize Republican ads using the line. CNN, which often gives less air time to partisan cable feuds, mentioned “build that” 16 times.
The previous month, Obama's remark at Friday news conference that the "private sector's doing fine" sparked a media frenzy. Although Obama quickly clarified his remark, the line still got dozens of cable mentions into the following week. Fox News covered the gaffe 28 times from June 8 to June 11, including Saturday, Sunday and Monday on "Fox & Friends." MSNBC covered it 19 times, with CNN clocking in at 16.
Most recently, Romney’s comment to NBC's Brian Williams about "disconcerting" reports over London's preparedness for the Olympics overshadowed much of his trip. From July 26 to July 29, the gaffe got plenty of mentions on MSNBC (21), Fox News (16), and CNN (15).
But it's not only presidential candidates whose misplaced words can drive the day. Some of the biggest gaffes have come from advisers, including Romney aide Eric Ferhnstrom suggesting that switching from the primary to the general election was akin to shaking an "Etch A Sketch," or Obama surrogate Cory Booker calling attacks on Romney’s Bain Capital record "nauseating." The 2012 election was overtaken briefly by a comment from Hilary Rosen, a CNN pundit unaffiliated with either campaign.
Obama has long criticized the 24/7 political media culture, arguing that the incessant focus on who's up and who's down distracts from more important issues. And so, when asked whether coverage of Romney's verbal flubs has been destructive to the broader discourse, Obama campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt disputed the question.
"Cable chatter should never serve as a campaign’s North Star," LaBolt said in an email. "What penetrates in battleground states is what matters. Every day ... we’ve gone out to make the case that voters have the opportunity to break a stalemate in November between two economic agendas, one that will build the economy from the middle class out and the other that will continue to reward the wealthiest with special breaks and assumes that the market will take care of the rest."
Romney, for his part, took up the mantle of press critic Tuesday morning, suggesting to Fox News reporter Carl Cameron that the media is too focused on small-ball matters.
“I realize that there will be some in the Fourth Estate, or whichever estate, who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geopolitics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to a nuclearization of Iran,” Romney said.
Kevin Madden, Romney's longtime adviser, called it a "race to atomize the news coverage" in which instantaneous coverage often wins more attention than longer analysis.
"I truly believe that the bigger debate over bigger concerns make a more lasting impression on the most persuadable voters," Madden told The Huffington Post. "And as a campaign, you have to remind yourself of that fact. You have to constantly ask yourself, 'Does this really matter?'"
Ari Fleischer, who was White House press secretary during George W. Bush's presidency, put it this way: "Politicians have to be disciplined enough to engage on Twitter, but also to ignore Twitter."
Each campaign's high-mindedness will, of course, disappear once the opposition makes its next flub. And their tweets and emails pointing it out will find a receptive audience among a press corps eager for the next micro-controversy.
"There is this tendency to want to catch you in the next one, so everything you say -- people begin to parse and pull a nugget out to use against you to further a negative narrative," said former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, a self-admitted "expert in the area" of gaffe politics.
Political reporters routinely justify gaffe coverage by citing journalist Michael Kinsley's 1983 maxim that a gaffe "occurs not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth."
Nearly three decades ago, Kinsley wrote in the New Republic that the candidate gaffe has become "the principal dynamic mechanism of American politics, as interpreted by journalists." But these days, he said, the press corps’ gaffe obsession is only “getting worse,” with reporters routinely treating all verbal miscues as deep revelations about the candidate’s supposedly secret views.
"I think the whole campaign has been about gaffes and not about -- I hate to sound pompous -- the issues," Kinsley told The Huffington Post. "Romney's whole campaign strategy, at this point, is to avoid gaffes. The only way to avoid gaffes is to avoid talking."
Hunter Stuart produced the video. Rebecca Ballhaus provided research assistance.