When political gaffes turn toxic

Story highlights

  • Politicians can overcome some gaffes, but others are deadly, says Dean Obeidallah
  • Some gaffes are just factual errors. Others are much more revealing, he says
  • Todd Akin's rape comments may spell the end of his senatorial chances, he says
  • Obeidallah: Will Akin's comments also bring down the Romney/Ryan ticket?

Politicians make gaffes almost daily. Some they can overcome. Some are fodder for late-night comedians. Some are deadly to their campaigns. Republican congressman Todd Akin's recent gaffe was so toxic, he may not only have killed his campaign, he may be the political equivalent of a zombie who also infects the Romney/Ryan ticket with his deadly virus.

The American public is smarter than most political campaigns give us credit for. We may not be geniuses -- me included -- but we intuitively grasp when a politician has merely slipped up or when he or she has revealed something much more significant.

The first type of political gaffes are just that: mistakes. For example, when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama said he had campaigned in "57 states." Or when Rep. Michele Bachmann suggested that the American Revolution had started in New Hampshire.

These kinds of comments are generally overcome. The only time they're potentially fatal is if they occur with such frequency that they begin to define the politician. Note to Joe Biden: You are really getting close to achieving that feat.

Dean Obeidallah

Then there are the gaffes that are not gaffes at all. These reveal the candidate's views on an issue or a character flaw that we had not previously seen.

Rep. Todd Akin's notorious remark Sunday clearly falls into the second category.

Akin assessing candidacy with conservatives in Florida

His statement that a woman being raped could magically shut off her reproductive system and avoid becoming pregnant was so outrageous that even Mitt Romney quickly denounced him. (Surprising, because Romney failed to condemn Rush Limbaugh's despicable comments regarding Sandra Fluke, the law student whom Limbaugh called a "slut" on his radio show after she appeared before Congress to discuss contraception.) Akin's statement also brought national attention to his radical position that a woman who becomes pregnant from rape should be required to carry the baby to term.

Is this one statement enough to destroy Akin's Senate campaign? A quick review of the history of political missteps of this type tells us that Akin is probably "dead candidate walking."

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For example, in 1990, Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams was leading his Democratic opponent, Ann Richards, by 11 points with less than three months to go before Election Day. Williams then uttered a campaign-changing wisecrack comparing bad weather and rape: "If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.'' Thankfully, Williams lost by 2 points.

Candidates have even been undone by a single word, as in the case of Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, who had been seeking the 1968 Republican nomination for president. Romney had supported the Vietnam War but then came out against it when running for president, as it had become unpopular. (This is apparently a Romney family trait.)

Romney, trying to explain his new anti-war position, commented that in 1965, he had visited Southeast Asia and met with U.S. generals who "brainwashed" him into supporting the war. Romney's candidacy could never overcome this remark.

And there was Republican Sen. George Allen's public use of the racially derogatory term "macaca" to describe a staff member of his opponent's campaign who was of Indian heritage. Allen had been leading in the polls at the time but went on to lose that 2006 election.

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Some candidates have even been undone by simply showing too much emotion, causing voters to question the candidate's stability.

In 1972, Sen. Edmund Muskie was a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. But his candidacy came apart when Muskie reportedly had "tears streaming down his face" as he emotionally defended attacks on his wife and himself by the publisher of a New Hampshire newspaper. Consequently, many were concerned that Muskie didn't posses the composure needed to serve as president.

In the same vein, Howard Dean's 2004 presidential ambitions were derided when he released a flu-ridden (and blood-curdling) scream during a speech shortly after losing Iowa's Democratic caucus.

But there's one big difference between Akin's gaffe and the other politically deadly ones above. Those hurt only the candidates who committed them. Akin's comments may even hurt the Romney campaign and other Republicans.

Indeed, the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, instructed Akin to not attend next week's Republican National Convention. However, the problem for Romney and others in the GOP is that while Akin may not be at the convention, his radical view that abortion should be banned in the U.S. with no exceptions for rape will be. This position is part of the Republican Party's national platform, adopted a few days ago and supported by Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan.

As the postscript for this campaign is written after Election Day, we may find that Akin's comments mark the first time that a political gaffe not only doomed the candidate who made it, it also dragged down his party's presidential ticket.

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