That's nice and pithy, but not quite the whole story. Kinsley himself elaborated: "A gaffe (...) is when a politician tells the truth - or more precisely, when he or she accidentally reveals something truthful about what is going on in his or her head. A gaffe is what happens when the spin breaks down."
And more often than not, a gaffe is when the politician tells you something that plays straight to the heart of a pre-existing perception that that politician has been trying to repudiate (or perhaps, as in the case of Sarah Palin, refudiate).
Romney has had his share of awkward comments along the way. Some of them have simply been the result of unfortunate phrasing, such as his statement that "corporations are people, too." Some have only become awkward because they were taken totally out of context, such as his assertion that he "likes to fire people". (What he really said was: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn't give me a good service that I need, I want to say, 'I'm going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.'" )
I suppose you could, at a stretch, classify such comments as gaffes. But they are hardly damning. Insofar that they tap into any pre-existing perception - well, that perception isn't one that he needs to toss aside. Corporations are people, in the sense that any money flowing into them ends up in the pockets of those working for the corporations. I really can't see anyone getting worked up about that. And yes, most of us would agree that it's a good thing to be able to get rid of those who provide bad services, and go and find someone else.
Some comments have, however, been quite horrible.
For me, the one that sticks to mind is his "poor" statement. The comment, in full, is:
"I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich, they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling, and I'll continue to take that message across the nation."
What is so absolutely wrong with this statement is the idea that you don't have to worry about the "very poor", because there's a "safety net". You can lump them into the same category as the very rich - there's really no need to get your knickers in a twist about either of these groups of people, since they're doing just fine.
Anyone who really thinks - as Romney clearly does - that there's no need to worry about the very poor is off his rocker. You don't necessarily have to be all too sympathetic to the poor to understand this: we are talking about a group of people who, quite simply, burden society greatly. They do that simply by virtue of their poverty, by crime, by lack of education. The question of how to tackle this is an important one, and one that has worried politicians, economists and sociologists for many, many years. To say that you're not even aware that there is a problem in the first place is a very, very dubious comment indeed.
Again, though, I'm not quite sure how comfortably the comment fits into the "gaffe" mould. If Romney were asked the same question today, he'd probably reply in more or less the same manner. He'd probably reiterate the "safety net" idea, and the fact that, in his mind, enough has been done to help the poor. And whilst this might be true for me, I doubt most of you would be up in arms at such new comments, certainly not if they were phrased a little more delicately.
Yesterday, however, we were suddenly treated to the real thing. Suddenly, and quite out of nowhere, a real gaffe jumped straight out of our TV's and bit us on the nose.
It wasn't just surprising, it was ironic, too.
After all, yesterday was Romney's Big Day of Fun. He'd just won Illinois; he'd finally gotten his big win in the Midwest. A 12% victory over that yapping weasel scoundrel, Santy something. Take that, Michigan! Take that, Ohio! And then Jeb Bush - oh, endorsement of endorsements!
What a glorious day! To stand there in the spring sun, radiant and strong! To suckle the sweet, sweet milk of victory! To -
And, then, of course, someone squeaked "Etch a Sketch". And it all came tumbling down.
The guy who squeaked was Eric Fernstrom, a top Romney adviser. And he wasn't really squeaking. Instead, he was, quite calmly and reasonably, answering a journalist's question.
"Is there a concern that the pressure from Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to attach so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?" the journalist asked hopefully.
And Fehrstrom obligingly answered:
"Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again."
A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth. Fehrstrom might not actually be a politician (I guess it's up for debate), but he certainly spoke the truth. Perfectly, in fact. His remark summed up the Romney problem in a way that left everyone hugely impressed. This, for example, was posted on Redstate:
"We’ve been at a loss to encapsulate our opposition into a one-liner; a bumper sticker. After all, it takes copious pages of ink to explain the extent of Romney’s hypocrisy on the issue of healthcare alone. Yet, late in the 11th hour of the campaign, when it’s probably too late to make a difference, we have finally discovered our symbol that exemplifies Romney."
And Gingrich, too, praised Fehrstrom, remarking that "a more perfect illustration" for why people distrusted Romney could not be found.
A gaffe, more often than not, is when a politician tells you something that plays straight to the heart of a pre-existing perception - a perception that the politician has been trying to repudiate. Again, Fehrstrom was spot on: in one simple image, he succinctly and precisely painted the cage Romney has been trapped in all through this race.
And so, in just about any way that counts, we have the almost perfect gaffe. The most gaffysome of all gaffes. The grotesque grandfather of all gaffyness. The -
When you think about it, there is another aspect to the great gaffe. It's so obvious that it's never really mentioned, but it's there all the same. It's this: for a gaffe to truly work, the truth it reveals must have been hidden. It must be one of those awkward, unwanted truths, something you've long since swept under the carpet by the time the neighbours come calling. And when they do, you can give them soothing beverages and canapés, and they'll not notice the bulgy shape in the corner.
When you think about it, that's where the Fehrstrom gaffe falls flat. That's why, as gaffes go, it's basically dead as a doornail. The simple fact of the matter is that it didn't reveal anything we didn't already know about Romney. Nada, zilch, and all that.
Surely no-one can be truly surprised by Fehrstrom's comment? Surely everyone who has been following this contest - even if only half-heartedly - would immediately realise that Fehrstrom was not inadvertently digging up some well-buried secret, but simply reconfirming an evident truth?
What is ultimately surprising about the whole incident is not what Fehrstrom said, but how Republicans have reacted to it. They seem to have seriously been considering Romney as a conservative. A conservative Republican, the new improved kind of conservative Republican - the kind all good people dream about when they huddle up at night under their US flag duvets and think Pure Thoughts after - well, after having not been so very good.
For them, perhaps, there may be a real gaffe here. For ordinary people, though, not so much.
For ordinary people, the truth, as revealed by Fehrstrom, is not only self-evident, it is welcome, too.
Yes, Romney will be able to hit a reset button.
Yes, Romney will be able to hit a reset button.
In fact, they're counting on it.