It’s a tough gig, running for president. The modern media is brutally unforgiving with its microphones and video cameras: Any word, any image, at any moment can haunt a candidate for a lifetime.
This campaign is certainly no exception. Here is Politico’s list of the top eight gaffes that are virtually certain to haunt John McCain and Barack Obama until Election Day:
At an April 6 fundraiser in San Francisco, a city whose name many on the right take as a shorthand for liberal excess, Obama told the gathered donors in remarks not intended for broader consumption:
"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them…And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."
Not coincidentally, the small towns in places like Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia are where Obama found the least support in his primary bid.
2. Countless houses
There’s never a good time for such a slip, but when McCain wasn’t able to tell Politico in an interview last month how many houses he owned (“I think—I’ll have my staff get to you, I can’t tell you about that. It’s condominiums where—I’ll have them get to you,” he replied), the timing was especially bad.
The slip dovetailed perfectly with a just-launched Democratic bid to counter McCain’s ads painting Obama as a lightweight celebrity with an offensive of their own depicting the Republican as wealthy and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.
The Obama campaign had an attack ad spot-lighting the remarks up the same day.
3. “Shout out to my pastor”
Obama, who took the name of his second book, “the Audacity of Hope,” from one of the sermons of his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., cut ties after footage surfaced of Wright at the pulpit saying, among other things, “God damn America.”
So far, no video has circulated showing Obama taking in any of his longtime pastor’s more fiery sermons. There is a clip, though, of the already declared presidential candidate’s praise for Wright last July while addressing a conference of black clergy members:
“And then I’ve got to give a special shout out to my pastor. The guy who puts up with me, counsels me, listens to my wife complain about me. He’s a friend and a great leader not just in Chicago but all across the country, so please everybody give an extraordinary welcome to my pastor Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., Trinity United Church of Christ.”
The comments seems tailor-made for an attack ad, where they can be juxtaposed with some of Wright’s more inflammatory remarks.
4. Don’t know much about economy
In 2005, McCain told the Wall Street Journal, "I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated."
By his own admission, that education hasn’t happened yet. Last year, before the economy passed the war in opinion polls as voters’ foremost concern, he conceded,“The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should.”
He added, “I’ve got Greenspan’s book”—though given the decline in the former Fed chair’s reputation since the burst of the housing bubble, that remark too might come back to haunt him.
As damaging as print quotes can be, it’s video of similar comments that may prove most damaging with voters.
5. “Likable enough”
As polls continue to show that Clinton supporters, and especially older women, ay cross the aisle and vote for McCain (who ran an ad running during coverage of the Democrat convention urging them to do just that), Obama’s crack at his then-rival during the Jan. 5 primary debate may come back to haunt him.
Clinton was asked a question about voters preferring Obama to her on a personal level, and as she replied, “I’ll try to go on. He’s very likable, I agree with that. I don’t think I’m that bad—“ he interrupted to crack, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
Longtime Hillary watchers flashbacked to the first debate in her successful 2000 Senatorial run, when her opponent Rick Lazio strode across the stage and physically confronted her with a pledge in hand for her to sign. Women cringed, and Lazio, who’d been expected to run at least a competitive race, was quickly reduced to the answer to a trivia question.
6. “100 years”
McCain’s remark at a January 3 town hall that American troops might stay in Iraq for 100 years had been intended to evoke America’s continued peacetime military presence in countries like Germany and South Korea, but the sound bite endures:
Questioner: “President Bush is talking about our staying in Iraq for 50 years.”
McCain: “Maybe 100 [talking over each other]. We’ve been in South Korea—we’ve been in Japan for 60 years, we’ve been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That’d be fine with me as long as Americans—as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed. That’s be fine with me.”
Obama quickly added the line “John McCain wants us to keep troops there for 100 years” into his stump speech, and MoveOn.org aired one of the first significant third-party buys of the cycle, “Not Alex,” with a young mother looking into the camera while holding her baby, Alex, and telling John McCain he can’t have her baby to serve in Iraq.
7. The “Ones”
Republicans will spend the next two months painting Obama as an empty celebrity with a messianic complex. Expect this Super Tuesday Obama moment to resurface as part of that effort:
“You see, the challenges we face will not be solved with one meeting in one night. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.
“We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek. We are the hope of those boys who have little; who've been told that they cannot have what they dream; that they cannot be what they imagine.”
Politico’s list ends where the McCain list begins, with the Republican answering a question from Mike Allen, this one from January:
“Mac or PC?”
“Neither,” McCain replied. “I am a illiterate that has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get.”
Younger, internet-savvy voters were aghast.
Honorable mention: The wives
Michelle Obama — Pride
On February 18, Michelle Obama gave two speeches that right-wing talk radio have replayed endlessly since. In the first, she said of her husband’s surging candidacy, “For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”
In the later speech, she toned the remark down slightly: “For the first time in my adult life, I’m really proud of my country, and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.”
Cindy McCain—The only way to travel
Meanwhile the Netroots lit up after Cindy McCain’s remark in July on traveling about the state while her husband ran for the Senate, “In Arizona the only way to get around the state is by small private plane.”
Honorable mentions: Symbolic screw-ups