Kevin Drum meditates on "the usual preoccupation that political reporters have with process over substance":
For example, Steve Benen notes today that Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes recently dodged "a straightforward question about whom she voted for in the 2012 presidential election" and got hammered for it. But in Iowa, when Ernst refused to say if she wants to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency or what she'd do for those who’d lose health care coverage if Obamacare is repealed, the reaction was mostly crickets.The notion that political reporters actually admire evasiveness on policy is interesting, as is the claim that it's the relatively policy-free gaffes that get pilloried. But I'm not sure what exactly constitutes a gaffe over "a process issue." Kerry struggling to explain why he voted for a certain funding allocation for the Iraq war before he voted against it? That really was about process,and the peculiar logic of Senate votes -- but it was cast as being about character. Mitt Romney's disquisition on the 47 percent? That, too, was process -- let's write off 47% hard-core government bennies addicts -- but it also expressed a widely-held Republican political, social and moral assumptions.
The difference is that Grimes was clumsy over her handling of a process issue: her support for a president of her own party. Reporters feel free to go after that. Ernst, by contrast, was crafty over her handling of policy issues: in this case, environmental policy and health care policy. Likewise, Gardner is being crafty about his handling of abortion and contraceptive policy. That sort of craftiness generally invites little censure because political reporters don't want to be seen taking sides on an issue of policy—or even rendering judgment about whether a candidate's policy positions have changed. In fact, being crafty on policy is often viewed as actively praiseworthy because it shows how politically savvy a candidate is.
Political scientists tell us that very few gaffes, including these two, have a demonstrable effect on public opinion or election outcomes -- with a notable likely exception for those that induce pillars of one's own party to turn on the gaffer. Such gaffes, like Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comment, generally do have a policy component. (Drum does allow that exceptions to his "policy gaffes don't hurt" rule can occur when the candidate "says something truly loony").
Acknowledging that gaffes are generally gossamer, I still can't resist compiling a little bestiary. Besides policy gaffes, there are...
Insult gaffes, enraging powerful constituencies (e.g., Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia -- see Biden, Joe).
Belief system gaffes that assault cherished assumptions,. Who didn't build that?
Idiot gaffes that appear to open up chasms of ignorance or mental incapacity. No more communism in Eastern Europe? (in 1976.) Abolish departments of what, what and what, Perry?
Character gaffes, appearing to reveal personal weakness or depravity, often through denial. "I'm not a.." generally translates to "I am a...".
Process gaffes that appear to show the cynic behind the curtain. Forget the 47%? Vote yes and no for the same appropriation according to circumstance? Shake the Etch-a-Sketch and pull out a new me for the general election?
Taxonomy is fun, but it must be confessed that any really resonant gaffe will fit multiple categories. An insult gaffe will be held to express skewed values, unpleasant character traits such as aggression or envy, and possibly stupidity. Offensive beliefs seem likewise to bespeak a problem of character e.g., a lack of empathy or understanding. Process gaffes hint at the most widely alleged (and most loathed) political sin: placing political calculation above the national interest.
Of course, for those who are emotionally invested in policy, proposals that we disapprove of also seem redolent of all the deadly sins above.