Hillary Clinton sat down for an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer earlier this week and said something mildly interesting. “We came out of the White House not only dead broke,” the former first lady said, “but in debt.” Huh, they were in debt? Imagine that. Well, they’re rich now, having capitalized on the easy and insane earning power of a former president, so good for them. End of story, right?
Hah. No. You see, this was a “gaffe.” And not just any gaffe – it was “The First Gaffe Of 2016.” Clinton, in saying that she was “broke,” was somehow being out-of-touch because … it’s not really clear why. But conservatives (who spent all of 2012 defending Mitt Romney from wisecracks about his own wealth) and lazy pundits pounced.
Mark Halperin, appearing on "Morning Joe" (obviously), said the “gaffe” shows that Clinton, who has been in politics for over 20 years, is not ready to be in politics. “I don’t think that’s being overplayed. In terms of just political skill and political readiness, and having a good political ear, I think if you’re a Clinton supporter this is a really, really out-of-touch comment. Of the kind that I don’t think she can afford to make.”
Hillary’s “gaffe” was so critical that Politico reported it as it happened. Then they reported on the “fallout” and the “backlash.” Then they reported on it again, this time in the context of her “long history of gaffes.”
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin – who spent 2012 writing that Romney’s wealth shouldn’t matter – asked of the Clintons’ post-White House financial windfall: “So when is enough money, you know, enough?” Commentary’s Jonathan Toobin wrote: “What this gaffe tells us is that while the widespread support for the idea that it is time we had a female president makes her the odds-on favorite for 2016, this Clinton still has the same tin ear for public opinion that hamstringed her 2008 presidential run.”
So here we are, in June 2014, with no actual candidates and no actual campaigns, and Hillary Clinton has already made a potentially campaign-ending “gaffe.”
In the end, none of this “gaffe” coverage will matter, and it will have no influence on how people perceive Clinton. “Everybody already knows who Hillary Clinton is,” Paul Waldman writes at the Washington Post. “Not that that will stop people from talking about this gaffe, or the next one, or the one after that.”
And people will talk about it, mainly because we have a political media that is really excited to cover presidential elections and also terrible at it. The 2012 election was famously defined by “gaffes” – “you didn’t build that,” “can’t change Washington from the inside,” “the private sector’s doing fine” – that sucked up a tremendous amount of press attention and ended up having precisely zero impact on the outcome of the race. That lesson clearly wasn’t learned, or it’s being actively ignored. Either way, we’re stuck with terrible, shallow, inane coverage.
The glut of coverage accorded to Clinton’s “dead broke” comment – and all gaffes, really – can also be explained by the fact that reporting on gaffes is incredibly easy. The people whose job it is to be outraged by gaffes will blast out press releases informing the world of their outrage, thus providing ready-made reaction quotes. Concern trolls from the gaffer’s own party can usually be counted on to wring their hands about how this undermines the party’s efforts to appeal to [insert voter demographic], so there’s your “bipartisan outcry” angle. Pad it out with a few recent poll numbers and “what does this mean going forward?” speculation and BOOM! You’ve won the morning.
The absurd focus on Clinton’s “gaffe” is also unfortunate given that Diane Sawyer did manage to pin Clinton down on a substantive issue that’s been in need of some attention: embassy security.
The continued Republican obsession with the “coverup” aspect of the Benghazi attacks is an obvious and transparent effort to keep the issue alive long enough to be deployed against Clinton in 2016. Erik Wemple noted that Sawyer, in her questioning of Clinton, “upended the emphases of Benghazi ‘scandal’ coverage” by focusing heavily on pre-attack security considerations and downplaying the post-attack minutiae that reporters and conservatives love to endlessly pick apart. If there is a scandal to be wrung from the Benghazi attacks, it concerns the State Department’s ability to provide diplomatic security, both before Benghazi and in the years since.
But those issues, while relevant to actual real-world concerns, are complicated and can’t be easily broken down into sound bites. So the lion’s share of the attention will go toward divining meaning from Hillary Clinton’s and every other would-be candidate’s rhetorical miscues and awkward turns of phrase. Because in the end, all we really want to know is: What about your gaffes?