When we hear of the latest gaffe made by some politician, usually on the right, we all chuckle a bit at the apparent cluelessness that’s on display. It’s fun when a politician says something stupid or downright inane, it shows them, intellectual warts and all, and it reinforces the idea that maybe these big shots aren’t so high and mighty after all. It’s fun to watch other people make asses out of themselves, especially when they take themselves so seriously.
It’s the reason I watch primary debates.
Yet when these sort of comments are uttered in the heat of a political campaign, it seems to us so insipid of them to not understand that people are listening, and many are waiting for the chance to pounce on some verbal flub. For some, it’s the way they make their living and they’re counting on it to happen.
So when someone says that ‘married women can’t be raped by their husbands’ or that poverty is due to ‘inner city’ culture, it’s invariably followed by a near instantaneous onslaught of attention, mostly on the internet.
Can it be that these pols really are such intellectual lightweights and simply don’t understand why people sit up and take notice when saying some of the things they say? Or, is it because they are so rabid in their beliefs that they can’t understand why their statements aren’t taken as gospel and received with widespread acclaim and standing ovations?
It’s neither. What it is, is advertising.
In the current state of politics in the U.S. with endless election cycles, those aspiring for higher public office have to get noticed. To utter something outrageous is a calculated effort to be seen and heard.
In doing so, they differentiate themselves in some way from the rest of the pack. And, because campaign politics, primary campaign politics especially, is an exercise in ruthlessness and raw ambition if nothing else, even getting noticed for something bad is better than not getting noticed at all.
So when a Paul Ryan says that when we feed a hungry kid, we’re actually doing him long-term harm, he says that not so much because that’s how he feels (although that may be the case as well) but because he knows that that’s what that audience wants to hear, and no marks need be given or taken away for lack of accuracy.
Take the instance of Mitch McConnell taking the stage at CPAC’s 'open-mic nights' bearing a shotgun. What he’s communicating is ‘see, fellas, I’m one of you’. For history buffs, there's Richard Nixon and his peace sign wavery. Let’s not forget to wear our flag lapel pins either, and by the way, mine’s bigger than yours.
They are merely heeding Nixon’s (again with Nixon!) famous advice: If you’re a Democrat in a primary, run to the left. And if you’re a Republican in a primary, run to the right. Both should run towards the center in the general election.
And many have taken his advice, because as weird as Nixon was, he was not a stupid man. The problem is that in our never-ending election cycle, primary season never ends. That’s why we hear these outlandish, even insulting comments coming from the Ryan’s, the Rand’s, the Cruz’s:
They need to get noticed.