WASHINGTON (AP) — You might think this year's candidates had learned from Barack Obama's comments about bitter people who "cling to guns or religion." Or perhaps from Mitt Romney's apparent dismissal of the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay federal income taxes.
But despite ubiquitous cellphone cameras and Twitter accounts, politicians still make regrettable off-the-cuff remarks that find their way into hostile videos and campaign ads. The latest examples come from tightly contested Senate races, where a candidate's every sentence — uttered in public or in supposedly private meetings — is parsed for possible gaffes.
In Iowa, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley apologized after describing six-term GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley as "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law." In New Hampshire, Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown seemed not to thoroughly think through his options when The Associated Press asked if he was the state's best choice, having just moved from Massachusetts.
"Do I have the best credentials?" Brown replied. "Probably not. 'Cause, you know, whatever." And in Louisiana, Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy is counter-punching Democrats who selectively excerpted his remarks about uninsured people, some of whom, he said, are "relatively less sophisticated" or, perhaps, "illiterate."
People certainly can debate the severity of the remarks themselves, and the fairness of attacks built around them. But there's no stopping the comments from showing up in barbed video snippets, which nearly always omit the larger context and possible mitigating circumstances surrounding them.
The old saying in politics is, "If you're explaining, you're losing." Both parties jump on opponents' recorded missteps — real or perceived — and delight in watching the targets try to explain their way out.
Of the most recent batch, Braley's may prove most problematic. He's running for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin, in a perennially competitive state. As in many cases, Braley's controversial remarks were made far from the main stage, in a setting that seemed unlikely to make news back home. He told trial lawyers at a Texas fundraiser in January that if Democrats lose their Senate majority, the Judiciary Committee could be chaired by Grassley, "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law."
Some saw the comment as a slap at farmers in a heavily agricultural state. Both political parties and many campaigns have teams of researchers seeking just such moments, which are recorded and posted online.
Braley quickly apologized to Grassley, but Republicans have not let up. Iowa's GOP Gov. Terry Branstad predicted the remarks will be "very damaging" to Braley. In New Hampshire, it's unclear whether Brown's remarks will hurt his effort to oust Sen. Jeanne Shaheen this fall. Late-night comics lampooned Brown's "whatever" comment. "Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon suggested Brown's campaign signs should read: "Scott Brown for Senate. Or Whoever. Whatever. Forever."
Brown responded with the aw-shucks style that helped him win a 2010 special Senate election in Massachusetts, even if he lost the seat two years later. "Appreciate the help on campaign slogans," Brown tweeted to Fallon's Twitter handle.
In Louisiana, Republicans say Democrats are irresponsibly contorting comments Cassidy made at a recent oil industry meeting. Cassidy hopes to oust three-term Sen. Mary Landrieu this fall. Cassidy, a physician, discussed why some people go without health insurance. He said it's unreasonable to think everyone can negotiate complicated forms and instructions involved in the president's health care law.
Some workers, Cassidy said, turn down free, employer-provided health insurance because the paperwork is too daunting. He said that is "the reality of who the uninsured are: relatively less sophisticated, less comfortable with forms, less educated."
In some cases, Cassidy said, "those are my patients. They're illiterate." "I say that in compassion," he continued. "They cannot read. The idea they're going to go on the Internet and work through a 16-page document to put in their data and sign up" is unrealistic.
A Louisiana Democratic group sent emails saying, "Bill Cassidy arrogantly insults uninsured" and says low-income Louisianians lack health insurance "because they're 'illiterate,' 'less sophisticated.'"
Cassidy replied in a statement Thursday, "It is self-evident to anyone who has worked with the uninsured, as I have for decades, that the uninsured come from all segments of society," including "the more and the less educated."
"Obamacare's one-size-fits-all model lacks this basic measure of compassion," Cassidy said. The government and independent groups have reported that uninsured people tend to have less education than insured people.
Some of America's most gifted politicians — even presidents — have been caught saying things they wished they had not. At a 2008 San Francisco fundraiser, where an attendee had a hidden recorder, then-Sen. Obama tried to explain why he was doing poorly in rural Pennsylvania. Battered by the bad economy, he said, some people "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy towards people who aren't like them."
Arguably more damaging were remarks that Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, made at a private fundraiser. Secretly recorded, they were published by Mother Jones magazine less than two months before the election.
Romney told donors that 47 percent of Americans would automatically vote for Obama because they don't pay income taxes and are "dependent upon government," which they count on "to care for them." The remarks boosted Democrats' portrayal of Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat.
And finally, there was President Ronald Reagan's joke, captured for posterity during a microphone check before a 1984 radio address. "I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever," Reagan said cheerily. "We begin bombing in five minutes."
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