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The Lowest Road to the Highest Office: Gaffe Grenades, Faux Outrage, and an Utter Disconnect From Our Real Problems

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Saturday night I was watching C-SPAN (isn't that what everybody does on Saturday nights?) and I saw an amazing thing -- a speech by Mitt Romney in which he was relaxed and natural, making jokes that weren't painfully awkward, and answering questions for 20 minutes thoughtfully and thoroughly. Who was this man, I wondered. Had I entered a different dimension? Actually, I had traveled back to February 2000, when Romney, then president and CEO of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, was addressing the National Press Club.

I had not intended, mind you, to watch the whole 30-minute speech. But I found the difference between the Romney of 2000 and the Romney of 2012 mesmerizing. He was loose, confident, jovial when he should be, serious when that was called for.

He talked about how the Olympics aren't about just branding and money, but about character, and how Olympic athletes inspire us and "lift us toward peace" -- a phrase he'd be terrified of using today for fear of sounding a bit too squishy and internationalist and U.N.-friendly. He talked about how he loves the Olympics because they're an antidote to the world his kids see:

In virtually every medium they touch, whether it's an Internet game, or it's TV, they see that luck is celebrated above preparation, they see that ease rises above hard work, that gratification excels over sacrifice, that violence is more interesting than charity, that winning comes above the rules, or respect, or sportsmanship and of course that money comes above everything.

He also talked about how much he appreciated the role of, gasp, government: "We depend enormously on the support of government and all of its agencies to make sure that we can be wonderful hosts to the world."

So what happened to that guy? How did he come to be replaced with the tightly-wound, dissembling, robo-candidate we see today?

It made me wonder: Why is running for president so diminishing? What is it about the process that turns thoughtfulness and confidence into desperation and insincerity? Why is it assumed that the only route to the highest office is the lowest road possible?

We have 25 million people unemployed or underemployed. We're on the edge of falling back into recession and none of the problems that led to this seemingly endless financial crisis have been solved -- or even really addressed. And yet our presidential campaign has devolved into a never-ending contest to see which side can catch other side in the worst "gaffe."

Yes, highlighting the opposing side's gaffes has always been a part of political campaigns, but now there are days when it seems that is all campaigns are about. Each campaign is on high alert, DEFCON 1 -- looking for the slightest hint of provocation. So much energy is devoted to the task that the election has become little more than spokespeople or surrogates making charges and countercharges, the other side demanding apologies, followed by more charges and countercharges, negative ads and negative response ads. It's like the stalemated front-line trenches of World War I. Each campaign is dug in, the lines aren't moving, and each day the two sides just lob gaffe grenades -- accusations and counter accusations -- back and forth at each other.

Lost in all this political trench warfare is the electorate -- the people on whose behalf this entire endeavor is ostensibly taking place. Whatever it is that the two parties are doing, it's completely disconnected and cut off from what people actually care about.

And it's not just about catching the other side in meaningless gaffes. When the gaffes don't come along at a steady enough clip, the campaigns just make them up. Who says we're losing our manufacturing prowess to the Chinese? If you factor in our robust and growing Gaffe Manufacturing Sector, we're still number one. (USA! USA! USA!)

The ability to create gaffes out of thin air is a bipartisan industry. Back in January, according to the media, the biggest story in the world was that, oh my God, Romney had said: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." Except it was obvious that what he meant was that he wants companies -- like the insurance companies he was talking about -- to have to compete for his business by providing good service.

The Romney campaign is no slouch at this ersatz gaffe generation, either. In fact, they've been blazing new ground. In June, they seized on the fact that Obama -- can you believe it! -- thinks the economy is "doing fine." Except it was obvious that what he meant was that the private sector was doing better relative to the public sector and that public sector cuts have dragged the entire economy down.

But that didn't stop the Romney campaign from trying to raise money off the "gaffe." "President Obama thinks the private sector is 'doing fine' and that America's businesses are built by government -- not hard-working Americans," read a Romney fundraising email. That last reference is to another fake gaffe, the one where Obama said, "if you've got a business, you didn't build that." Except that what he clearly meant was that the conditions for entrepreneurs to thrive in -- good roads, clean water, a stable banking system -- are created by people coming together. But this fake-gaffe attack got so much traction in attack ads, the Obama camp issued a counterattack ad.

Then there's the one where Obama said that "we tried our plan -- and it worked." That's outrageous! Except that what he meant by "our plan" was the Clinton tax plan, as is obvious if you read the sentence that came just previous to the "gaffe": "I'm also going to ask anybody making over $250,000 a year to go back to the tax rates they were paying under Bill Clinton, back when our economy created 23 million new jobs, the biggest budget surplus in history and everybody did well."

But that part was left out, creating an attack that Dave Weigel called "insanely misleading."

Which brings us to this past weekend, in which Romney caused an international incident and the near-severing of all U.S./UK ties when he wondered out loud if London was ready for the Olympics. Sure it could have been worded more artfully, but, really, did anybody watching the interview as it aired have his jaw hit the floor when Romney said that? It's one of those gaffes, as most are these days, in which you don't know it's a gaffe until you're told it's a Major Gaffe by the media or the attack ads that dress it up as one.

Clarence Page calls them "pseudo gaffes," which is a "truthful and seemingly inoffensive statement that, taken out of context, reinforces the worst impressions voters may have about the candidate."

And, yes, the 24/7 political press and its real-time tools of Twitter and instant video -- in which these gaffe brush fires pop up and can suddenly engulf the public discourse -- deserve their share of the blame. And, yes, we at HuffPost cover this tit-for-tat. But the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza believes the role the media plays in this new culture has, in fact, "created a crisis in political journalism." He continues:

People genuinely do not think it is in their interest... to talk in an unguarded way. Because even if they trust you to get the context 100 percent right, it doesn't matter, because they know that a liberal or conservative blog, or a campaign ad, will just grab something out of context and run with it and create some damaging meme. I've been doing this for 15 years, and it's worse now than it's ever been.

Plus there's the fact that, as Brendan Nyhan points out, "there is little convincing evidence that gaffes affect presidential election outcomes." The non-stop carpet-bombing of "gaffes" the campaigns have rained down on each other -- and on us -- certainly hasn't made much of a difference. The election numbers have largely been static for about six months, and what small movements there have been don't seem to have been due to any extra skill one side or the other has demonstrated in bringing new Outrageous Statements of My Opponent to our attention.

So given that the way the campaign is currently being run doesn't seem to be having much effect, why not try something different? What might actually move the needle is for one of the campaigns to try reconnecting the disconnected electorate to the race. There are 96 days left in the campaign. What if one of the candidates tried appealing to our better angels instead of our worst instincts? Since the idea is to connect with human beings -- a.k.a., the electorate -- what if the candidates just decided to take the risk of talking like human beings? Yes, there might be some instances in which an out-of-context statement would be cut into an ad, but, as we've seen, those kind of things happen anyway and they don't really work.

There's plenty to be outraged about when it comes to the real problems we're facing. What we don't need is 96 more days of phony outrage about fake gaffes. The race for the highest office shouldn't have to be so demeaning -- for the candidates or for us.

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