Indeed, the problem has become so pronounced in both parties that Republican officials, worried about a general election campaign marked by verbal blunders that leave the party vulnerable to charges of racism or sexism, have coined a term for it — “undisciplined messaging.”
So, in an effort to protect politicians of all stripes from the hazards of ill-considered statements, Politico offers its own Guide to Undisciplined Messaging, a list of dirty words or phrases that have already surfaced in this campaign but are better left unsaid.
Gaffe: While touring a factory in Detroit, Barack Obama was asked a question by a local female television reporter. “Hold on a second, sweetie,” he replied. “We’ll hold a press avail.”
Explanation: If your grandfather uses a term to describe the opposite sex, that should be a warning sign that it’s a bit outdated. And it doesn’t matter if you affectionately refer to your wife, significant other, or daughter that way.
“Hard-working Americans, white Americans”
Gaffe: In an interview with USA Today, Clinton questioned Obama’s support among "working, hard-working Americans, white Americans."
Explanation: If you can envision white supremacist David Duke using the phrase, it’s safe to assume it’s inappropriate for mainstream political discourse. As one of her strongest supporters, Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, delicately put it, the remark was “the dumbest thing she could have said.”
Gaffe: Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney both drew unwanted attention for referring to a difficult situation as a “tar baby.”
Explanation: The derivation of “tar baby” isn’t explicitly racist — it was originally just the sticky doll used to catch Br’er Rabbit in Joel Chandler Harris’ turn-of-the-century folktale. But over time the term has come to have unpleasant racial connotations, so avoid it altogether.
Gaffe: Speaking about Obama at the Northern Kentucky Lincoln Day dinner last month, Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) said of the senator: “I'm going to tell you something: That boy's finger does not need to be on the button.”
Explanation: There are many ways in which a politician could use the word “boy” and not self-immolate. But not when directing it in a condescending fashion toward an African-American presidential candidate.
Gaffe: Introducing Clinton to an Indiana crowd before the Democratic primary there, a local labor leader spoke of her “testicular fortitude.” He wasn’t the first to make reference to this anatomical impossibility in regards to Clinton — James Carville told ABC’s "Nightline" that if Clinton gave Obama “one of her cojones, they’d both have two.”
Explanation: If it’s the kind of word you wouldn’t say in polite company, then you certainly shouldn’t be saying it into a microphone or in any circumstance where it might end up on YouTube. The word “toughness” will do just fine here. Best to keep it above the belt.
Gaffe: Democratic North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley tells a crowd that Hillary Clinton “makes Rocky Balboa look like a pansy.”
Explanation: If it can be construed as gay-bashing it almost assuredly will be construed as gay-bashing. So, unless you’re talking about the flower, pansy is a no-go on the campaign trail. You can’t use it to mean “effeminate” or “weak.” Not anymore. The word has been explicitly condemned as a derogatory gay slur for decades and implicitly known as one for centuries. Gay blogs immediately latched onto Easley’s seemingly innocent comment, demanding that Clinton renounce it. Also out: fairy, fruit, nancy and, note to Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.): “maricon.”
Gaffe: Rep. Stephen I. Cohen (D-Tenn.) evoked the notorious film Fatal Attraction to describe Clinton’s intention to remain in the presidential race. Speaking to a local Tennessee television station, Cohen opined, “Glenn Close should have stayed in the tub.”
Explanation: It hardly needs to be said that equating Clinton with a bunny-killing cinematic psychopath doesn’t do justice to her or to the historic nature of her campaign. And it’s a good way to piss off your female constituents.
Gaffe: Examples, usually involving Barack Obama, are too numerous to mention. Not quite a cringe-worthy gaffe yet, but rapidly moving in that direction.
Explanation: Yes, Obama is articulate. But so are scores of other white politicians who are not regularly referred to as articulate. Calling him “articulate,” even by way of a sincere compliment, is premised on a stereotype, so it’s best avoided. For the record, as Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) learned the hard way, “clean” is not an acceptable alternative.
Any assassination reference
Gaffe: In an interview with the Argus Leader editorial board last week, Clinton said: “You know, my husband did not wrap up the nomination in 1992 until he won the California primary somewhere in the middle of June, right? We all remember Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California.” The week prior, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee made a fatuous joke about Obama getting shot at during a speaking engagement hosted by the National Rifle Association.
Explanation: Even in jest, assassinations are not funny. And in Clinton’s case, regardless of what she meant, the remark caused a minor political tremor precisely because the topic is so sensitive.