Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

When political gaffes turn toxic

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Fri August 24, 2012
Rep. Todd Akin's statement that a woman's body is capable of preventing pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape" was so outrageous that even Mitt Romney quickly denounced him, says Dean Obeidallah. But the Akin gaffe may end up infecting Romney's campaign. Rep. Todd Akin's statement that a woman's body is capable of preventing pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape" was so outrageous that even Mitt Romney quickly denounced him, says Dean Obeidallah. But the Akin gaffe may end up infecting Romney's campaign.
HIDE CAPTION
A gallery of gaffes
A gallery of gaffes
A gallery of gaffes
A gallery of gaffes
A gallery of gaffes
A gallery of gaffes
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
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?

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report and co-director of the upcoming documentary, "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter: @deanofcomedy

(CNN) -- 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.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

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.

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.

Hutchison: GOP has welcomed women
Baldwin and Holmes on Akin controversy
Rep. Todd Akin's shifting statements
Paul Ryan defends abortion record

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."

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.

Conservative Christians rally around Akin in face of GOP criticism

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT