If You Commit Gaffes, Do You Get A Pass To Commit More?

Nathan Gonzales, an old friend and colleague who serves as the Deputy Editor of the well-regarded Rothenberg Political Report, recently sent me an interesting theory: 

“Here is a working hypothesis for politicians: The more stupid things you say, the more leeway you are allowed. Basically, if you have a reputation for being a straight talker or saying politically incorrect things, then you are allowed to say politically incorrect things.” 

He included two examples—Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), whose recent remarks to an Asian Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas generated some unflattering headlines—and Vice President Joe Biden, who Nathan calls “probably the best example of this.” 

Although Nathan sent me his theory a few weeks ago, Biden helped validate it on Tuesday by committing yet another of his infamous gaffes.

Joe Biden Gaffe

According to Yahoo News:

“Vice President Joe Biden drew fire from a prominent Jewish group on Tuesday after he described unscrupulous bankers who prey on servicemen and servicewomen deployed overseas as ‘Shylocks’ — a term frequently condemned as an anti-Semitic caricature.

‘Shylock represents the medieval stereotype about Jews and remains an offensive characterization to this day. The Vice President should have been more careful,’ Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said.”

Biden compounded his error by also referring to Asia as “The Orient” earlier this week which, as ABC News noted, “is considered widely outdated and could be perceived as offensive, or insensitive, especially when used in reference to people.”

It’s not just Harry Reid and Joe Biden, of course—examples on the political right include flamethrowers like these two Texas congressmen: Rep. Louie Gohmert (sample quote: “[The Obama] administration has so many Muslim Brotherhood members that have influence that they just are making wrong decisions for America.”) and Rep. Steve Stockman (sample quote: “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted.”).

Steve Stockman Tweet

Nathan is onto something. These politicians—all of whom commit gaffes and/or say outrageous things with some regularity—seem to at least partially inoculate themselves from future criticism for subsequent gaffes since they’ve already created an expectation of committing such gaffes. (For example, many people are likely to greet a Biden gaffe at this point with a shoulder shrug and a half-hearted “Ah, that’s just Biden.”)

To stick with Biden-as-case-study, I suspect many people like his style (he’s a straight-shooter who doesn’t spin me) while others view him as thoroughly undisciplined. Most people have already chosen their side by this point, meaning Biden’s gaffes are already baked into his approval rating, as are those of the other politicians mentioned in this post, and many others who aren’t.

Would I recommend this “gaffe inoculation” as a purposeful strategy? No. Few people can make it work for themselves long term without their gaffes and outrageousness backfiring on them. But does it work for many public officials? The answer, for better or worse, appears to be yes.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.