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The Difference No Difference Makes

Aaron McKain

Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, left, listens as Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois answers a question during the CNN/YouTube debate in Charleston, South Carolina, Monday, July 23, 2007. (Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT)

Somehow it has become the question that roared:

xebec449: “[W]ould you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”

Sen. Barak Obama: “I would.”

With these two words, Obama saved the inaugural CNN/YouTube presidential debate from obscurity -- and perhaps sentenced it to irrelevance.

Heralded by its sponsors and starry-eyed editorialists as “revolutionary,” last Monday’s Democratic debate, the gimmick of which was that YouTubers could pitch vetted questions to the candidates, didn’t stand half a chance of living up to its own hype. Worse yet, it almost lost the chance to die with dignity alongside its own hype when the biggest things to shake out of this radical “experiment” in democracy—using the next day’s news coverage of the debate as a guide—was that Barak Obama is black, Hilary Clinton is a woman, and John Edwards is dumb enough to think a bitchy eye for fashion will play well in union towns.

Everyone involved—from the networks to the pundits to the candidates--must have collectively sighed and exhaled Hail Marys when finally, two days after the debate, an actual, honest-to-God news story emerged from it: Obama’s alleged rookie mistake of answering that he would be willing to meet with the remaining members of the Axis of Evil and its new backup band of Castro, Chavez, and al-Assad. The freshman Senator’s misstep was agreeing to talk to hostile countries “without preconditions,” a diplomatic blunder that The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer claims any “graduate student” would know to avoid.

Far more interesting than the particulars of Obama’s “flub” is why it took a couple of days for it to gain momentum in the news cycle. Flub coverage is tricky for journalists because of the difficulty in remaining objective while reporting on an evaluative statement about a candidate’s rhetorical performance. But what can be objectively reported on is someone else (let’s say, hypothetically, another presidential aspirant) stating that a candidate did, in fact, just totally screw themselves out of the White House. In the Obama story, this is where mysterious Clinton “supporters” step in on Wednesday, giving the Associated Press someone to explicitly hang its implied claim of an Obama “gaffe” on. This is also where Clinton herself lends a hand, telling the Quad City Times that Obama’s answer was “irresponsible, and frankly naïve.”

The historical pedigree of this press infatuation with gaffes is often traced anecdotally to Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960. White’s widely influential best-seller was an inside-baseball look at the Kennedy and Nixon campaigns, and his exposure of behind-the-scenes strategy and errors, all narrated safely from the hindsight of Kennedy’s victory, steered a new middle course for political journalism. If you didn’t want to be labeled a partisan hack (for commenting on the issues of a campaign), but you knew impartial descriptions of campaign speeches weren’t gonna put butts in seats or faces behind fishwrap, you could report on the election as a series of potential political miscalculations: how event x is or isn’t going to be a hurdle impeding little Johnny or Jeanette’s dreams of waking up as The President of The United State of America.

Unfortunately, as the Clinton-Obama saga bears out, when candidates know that gaffes are the Golden Ticket to news coverage, it inevitably leads to straw grasping.

David Corn of The Nation should be commended for at least admitting that he didn’t realize the Obama had committed a “flub”—the flub that is the subject of Corn’s editorial—until after Clinton pointed out the mistake in her response to the diplomacy question: “Well, I will not promise to meet with the leaders of these countries during my first year.” It’s a shrewd maneuver by the New York Senator, differentiating herself by implying a promise by Obama that wasn’t actually made in his answer. (Obama’s statement, in the context of the question, was simply that he “would” be willing to meet with rogue leaders.) But it’s also a maneuver that relies on persnickety tailoring of syntax and semantics to prove a mistake. When the evidentiary threshold is this low—and all it takes to get into the papers and onto the news-cycle is the mere hint that a candidate mispoke—cascading waves of absurdity ensue. Case in point: the Obama campaign’s immediate rejoinder is to point to how silly Clinton’s distinction is (Obama: “I didn’t say [Chavez and Ahmadinejad] were going to come over for a cup of coffee some afternoon”), then counter by offering a similarly innocuous Clinton quote as evidence that she’s flip-flopped on her own position (Clinton, in April: “I think it’s a terrible mistake for our president to say he won’t talk to bad people.”)

Of course, now that the Clinton-Obama tiff is a thriving news event, neither the punditocracy nor the media has any incentive to poke at the tenuous distinction lying at its heart, especially since the quarrel may raise real questions about the candidates’ approaches to foreign policy. Yet news coverage this past week has also amply demonstrated that the news doesn’t really have the foggiest idea why the Obama flub is itself an important story. Rather, the news knows allegorically why the story is important: it forces Obama and Clinton to engage each other (ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos called it the “Title Fight” we’ve all been waiting for) and it allows the candidates and the media to finally engage the “Experience versus New Ideas, Clinton vs. Obama” narrative script they’ve been waiting for since 2005. So, if everyone finally gets what they want, and ends up where they want to be, what difference does it make how they got there?

No difference, perhaps, unless you are committed to, or intrigued by, an allegedly “revolutionary” new mode of inclusive political debate. As long as gaffes are the premium means to catalyze news-coverage of issues -- and as long as these minor contradictions and momentary short-circuits of elocution emerge primarily through the machinations of rival candidates -- it really doesn’t matter what questions are being asked in political forums, let alone who’s asking them. The net result is that until the infatuation with the gaffe is challenged both by the media and by voters, innovations, like the YouTube debate, cannot help but remain, at worst, impotent, and, at best, superfluous.

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