Last week, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky’s Democratic nominee for the Senate, was asked in an editorial board meeting whether she had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Grimes hemmed and hawed a bit, obviously scared to say yes.
That outraged some, including NBC’s Chuck Todd, who said: “Is she ever going to answer a tough question on anything? . . . I think she disqualified herself.”
No question, Grimes botched this badly, and she should be able to answer a question as simple as this one. But this episode gets at a different problem: the odd set of unspoken rules that dictate what gets designated a “gaffe” or a serious mistake. Reporters use these rules, probably unconsciously, to decide what deserves further discussion — and they often let GOP candidates get away with some appalling stuff.
For instance, when Joni Ernst, the Republican Senate candidate in Iowa, flirted with the “Agenda 21 conspiracy theory — in which the U.S. government and the United Nations are supposedly conspiring to force rural people in Iowa and elsewhere to leave their homes and be relocated to urban centers — national pundits didn’t see it as disqualifying.
National observers also didn’t find it disqualifying when Tom Cotton, a Republican Senate candidate from Arkansas, expressed his belief that ISIS is now working with Mexican drug cartels to infiltrate America over our southern border.
Why do candidates like Cotton and Ernst get away with stuff like that, while Grimes gets raked over the coals for not wanting to reveal her vote and someone like Todd Akin can lose a race over his ruminations on “legitimate rape”? The standard employed isn’t “Does this statement reveal something genuinely disturbing about this candidate?” but rather, “Is this going to be politically damaging?” Grimes’ chief area of political vulnerability is that she’s a Democrat in Kentucky, where Barack Obama’s approval ratings are low, so whenever the question of Obama comes up, reporters are watching closely to see how deftly she handles it; if she stumbles, they pounce. Akin got hammered for “legitimate rape” not so much because of how bogus and vile the idea is, but because reporters knew it could have serious consequences among women voters, given both the GOP’s constant struggles with women and the fact that Akin’s opponent was a woman.
Of course, these judgments by reporters end up being self-fulfilling prophecies: if they decide that a “gaffe” is going to have serious political effects, they give it lots of attention, which creates serious political effects.
And in the last few years, there’s a baseline of crazy from the right that the press has simply come to expect and accept, so the latest conspiracy theorizing or far-out idea from a candidate no longer strikes them as exceptional. Sure, there are exceptions, for remarks that are truly, deeply bizarre or comical.
But during this cycle, Republican crazy just hasn’t broken through at all. It’s almost as if the national press has just come to accept as normal the degree to which the GOP has moved dramatically to the right.
So ideological extremism and insane conspiracy theories from the right have been normalized. Which means that when another Republican candidate says something deranged, as long as it doesn’t offend a key swing constituency, reporters don’t think it’s disqualifying. And so it isn’t.
Special to The Washington Post