Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

When political gaffes turn toxic

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
August 24, 2012 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT