A gaffe is in the mind of the beholder

The response to Kerry’s mention of Dick Cheney’s daughter is a Rorschach test that diagnoses three different attitudes toward gay people.
1) Gay is normal. among the young, libertarian, and socially tolerant, gay identity is like height and hair color – a neutral identifying characteristic. Mentioning Mary Cheney highlights the hypocrisy of Republicans who advocate laws to restrict the rights of people in their own families.
2) Gay is embarrassing. Among ordinary older folk, being gay is still embarrassing. People who are socially prejudiced may not be in favor of laws restricting the rights of gay people, but they consider it rude to identify a gay relative in public. Lynne Cheney’s reaction is an example of this attitude.
3) Gay is evil. Among Christian right wingers, being gay is evil. People who didn’t know that Mary Cheney is lesbian might not vote for her dad because he didn’t successfully protect her from Satan and forbid her sinful lifestyle.
It’s clear from the reaction that Kerry miscalculated. If Kerry spoke naively, as a New Englander who takes a level of social tolerance for granted, he underestimated the strength of garden-variety social prejudice. If Kerry meant to speak simultaneously to groups #1 and #3, then the tactic backfired badly by not taking #2 into account. The Rove Machine won the spin by building an alliance between groups #2 and #3, the prejudiced and the fundamentalists.
To those who watched the debates, Kerry clearly won, according to surveys of debate-watchers. He came across as competent and compassionate, stronger on international and domestic issues. But to the larger population who only see snippets of spin on TV, Kerry comes off as a bad guy.
Political speech is difficult because of the need to communicate to people with different worldviews and vocabularies. Great political speech builds common ground. Ordinary political speech is slippery and calculating — it is intended to mean different things to different people. Ineffective political speech fails both ways — it doesn’t build common ground, and it doesn’t assemble a majority by meaning different things to different people.

2 thoughts on “A gaffe is in the mind of the beholder”

  1. your spin is very weak. This is about deliberately and gratuitously using an opponent’s family member to score points, which is why so many people had a visceral negative reaction.
    Kerry and Edwards both brought it up specifically to drive voters away from Republicans, by appealing to what they hoped would be the most bigoted reactions of voters.
    Kerry and Edwards knew very well what they were trying to do, and that’s obvious from the context and the words they chose. It was just as bad as Bush’s campaign 4 years ago in the primary pointing out that McCain has an adopted daughter who isn’t white.
    That’s called demogoguery, and thank God most of the people in this country still think that’s dirty pool.

  2. “your spin is very weak.”
    ouf. Judith, I don’t think you read the post that I wrote. I said that Kerry’s comment was either naive or calculating, and either way, he lost the spin battle.
    Wedge issues are depressing. Whoever brings them up, they are calculated to divide, rather than to build agreement and understanding.

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