We’re experiencing the final spasmodic twitches of the 2014 midterm election cycle. In less than 48 hours it will be dead and unmourned, but we still have to get through the death rattle, and that means gaffes. Or, more precisely, “gaffes.”
One consistently terrible feature of modern politics is the faith campaign teams put in the power of outrage. Encouraged by a political press that favors the empty calories of campaign drama over the meat of policy arguments, candidates and their surrogates are forever on the lookout for “gaffes” from their opponents or their supporters to whip up some outrage and put the other side “on the defensive.” Sometimes, when no gaffes are to be had, they can be manufactured. Case in point: the dumb-as-rocks fight playing out in the Kansas Senate race right now between Republican Pat Roberts and independent candidate Greg Orman over the use of the phrase “clown car.”
Here’s what happened. Roberts, an establishment Republican who’s held his seat since 1997, found himself in unexpectedly deep trouble this cycle with a restive Kansas electorate, and is neck-and-neck with Orman in the polls. The GOP, in an effort to save Roberts and preserve their chances of taking the Senate, airlifted every national Republican they could find into Kansas to stump on Roberts’ behalf. Among the GOP luminaries campaigning for Roberts is Bob Dole, who represented Kansas in the Senate for nearly 30 years.
Orman, asked about the many high-profile party members who’d come to Roberts’ rescue, said “it sort of seems like a Washington establishment clown car to me.” He elaborated: “You know, every day a new person comes out of that car. You know, ultimately we have gone out and we have brought our case to the voters of Kansas, and everywhere I go, I hear the same things. Kansans think Washington is broken.”
From this, the Roberts campaign flipped into forced outrage mode, claiming that Orman, in referring to the “clown car,” had called Bob Dole – and only Bob Dole – a “clown.” Per Roberts’ campaign manager Corry Bliss: “His liberal personal views aside, for Greg Orman to attack Senator Dole as a ‘Washington establishment clown’ is an outrage.”
The fact that Roberts’ campaign had to disingenuously clip Orman’s remarks to make their point should be a tip-off here, as should the fact that their outrage is centered exclusively around Dole. John McCain, Rand Paul, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz and Mitt Romney have all campaigned on Roberts’ behalf, but Dole is the only one who’s from Kansas, so obviously when Orman referred to the “clown car,” he was talking exclusively about Bob Dole.
To the larger point: “clown car” is not an offensive term. It’s what linguists and people who aren’t being intentionally stupid refer to as a “metaphor.” In this case, Orman was making light of the fact that several high-profile Republicans had shown up in the state all at once. It’s a term that gets thrown around so often and by so many people that the strongest case you can make against its usage is that it’s hackneyed.
The better explanation for why the Roberts campaign is going down this path lies with the fact that their strategy has been to sling as much mud (not literally; that’s another metaphor) at Orman as they can. Roberts strategist Chris LaCivita said as much to National Journal last month: “If you're given two months to run a campaign and you're faced with two options—run a campaign based on what your incumbent accomplished, versus educating the electorate on your opponent, especially when your opponent is essentially unknown—it's not a hard decision.”
This ersatz outrage is all part of that strategy, and it has a long and undistinguished history of use by desperate campaign in the latter stages of the election cycle. Remember back in 2008 when Barack Obama and Joe Biden were running for president against John McCain and Sarah Palin? In September of that year, Obama said at a campaign event that McCain’s claims to be the change candidate were superficial and ridiculous, and made this point by employing the idiom, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” The McCain campaign cried foul, claiming that Obama had called Sarah Palin a “pig.” He didn’t, and McCain’s complaint was undermined by his own use of the expression, but it became a “controversy” because lazy political reporters are susceptible to this nonsense.
That’s the endgame of the Roberts team. They want reporters talking about this, and they want sympathetic conservative pundits to play dumb (or actually be dumb) and prop up their absurd interpretation of Orman’s “gaffe.”