John McCain’s senior advisor, Charlie Black, is in trouble. Not because he’s a former lobbyist whose professional history undermines the reformist credentials of his candidate. And not because he said something untrue in earshot of a reporter. His mistake was much larger: He accidentally said something true.
Speaking to Fortune magazine, Black was asked about the potential effect of a terrorist attack on McCain’s White House chances. “Certainly it would be a big advantage to him,” Black said. Outrageous! Within hours, Barack Obama’s spokesman, Bill Burton, had released a statement saying “the fact that John McCain’s top advisor says that a terrorist attack on American soil would be a ‘big advantage’ for their political campaign is a complete disgrace, and is exactly the kind of politics that needs to change.”
At a fundraiser the next day, Black apologized. “I deeply regret the comments,” he said. “They were inappropriate. I recognize that John McCain has devoted his entire adult life to protecting his country and placing its security before every other consideration.”
What he doesn’t say, you may notice, is that his comments were wrong. And that’s because he doesn’t believe they were wrong. Black got caught in what Washingtonians know as a “Kinsleyan gaffe,” named after the journalist Michael Kinsley, who once said that “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.” The McCain campaign’s position on this subject has long been known: If the race turns on the issue of terrorism, McCain might win. But if the dominant issue is the economy, he definitely loses. It’s just that his aides aren’t supposed to say that.
That’s why, in the very same article in which Black uttered these unspeakable remarks, McCain replied to a question about “the gravest long-term threat facing our economy” by saying, “the absolute gravest threat is the struggle that we’re in against radical Islamic extremism, which can affect, if they prevail, our very existence. Another successful attack on the United States of America could have devastating consequences.”
The interviewer, rather than asking if McCain had failed to hear the word “economy” in the question, marveled at McCain’s facility for “deftly turning the economy into a national security issue.” In other words, when Black said a terrorist attack would be good for the McCain campaign, he was roundly criticized. When McCain used a question about the economy to remind voters of the possibility of a terrorist attack, no one said a word, except his interviewer, who called him politically “deft.”
This sort of thing happens all the time. When Hillary Clinton was trumpeting her strength with Appalachian voters in Kentucky and West Virginia -- the vast majority of whom were white -- it was an acceptable argument about electoral appeal. When she got specific and said that she had a broader base on which to build a winning coalition because “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans” were moving away from Obama and “supporting me,” she was roundly criticized.
What was so bad about what she said? Though infelicitously phrased (the remark seemed to link being hard-working with being white), it was a common argument for her candidacy, and a fair one: She had support among voting demographics that an observer might imagine would add up to an easy majority. But it was unacceptable because it implied that white voters would not support the black candidate. Accurate or not, this made it seem like her campaign was taking advantage of racism, and that couldn’t be done explicitly, even if it could be implied every time her advisors ticked down the states that Obama seemed to struggle in.
Similarly, Obama was voicing a possibly controversial, but hardly way-out-of-the-mainstream, argument when he said “people don’t vote on economic issues because they don’t expect anybody is going to help them ... they don’t believe they can count on Washington. You go into 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 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.”
Again, the phrasing could’ve been better. Some interpreted it as a generalized swipe at the authenticity of rural spirituality and gun culture. But many others were offended by its intended meaning: that religious and cultural issues had less place in the political sphere than economic and foreign policy issues.
Obama spent a few days apologizing, but the whole of his campaign -- that he will fix Washington so that it’s actually responsive to the concerns of ordinary citizens, and in doing so will vastly increase civic engagement and help end the divisiveness of our politics -- is based on the underlying analysis.
It’s an odd quirk of our democracy that some of the most powerful forces in campaigns cannot be mentioned, at least not directly. Like the denizens of Plato’s cave, we’re stuck watching shadows of the actual election. McCain may not hope for a terrorist attack, but he certainly hopes for an electorate terrified of one, and much of his strategy relies on reminding them of the danger. Obama cannot directly say that McCain is too old -- that might offend somebody -- but when he lauds McCain’s “half-century of service” or asserts that this election is a choice between “the past and the future,” the message is clear.
In many cases, this is as it should be. It’s probably better that fear, age, race and all the rest remain sub-themes that emerge only when cynics forget to bite their tongue rather than explicit points of contention. Civility has its uses.
But the occasional Kinsleyan gaffe has its uses too. It clarifies campaign strategy and allows for the occasional peek behind the curtain. The McCain campaign does not wish a terrorist attack on the country, but its officials do hope Americans don’t dismiss one as an impossibility, and they do hope that Americans will think seriously about whether a one-term senator has the experience to respond to such an event.
The Obama campaign does not wish to make McCain’s age an issue explicitly, but its officials wouldn’t mind if the electorate viscerally understood that he’s a 71-year-old who laughingly confesses that he’s “illiterate” with computers. Because if the campaigns were being honest, they’d confess that they’re well aware of what we might as well call the Nixonian truth: Sometimes it’s the quiet, ugly stuff that helps you win.