Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Greatest Blunders: Parapraxery, Round 1, Part I

Onward and upward to the third quadrant of the bracket. As a reminder, the Parapraxery entrants all involve political figures who said unwise things in the heat of the moment. In theory their errors were inadvertent, but they may have revealed deeper truths. It's like a Freudian slip, except not necessarily sexual.

Readers will note that this quadrant skews toward the present day more than any other. That's not a coincidence. It was much, much harder to get caught in something like this before sound and video recording became commonplace. And even then, for many decades of the radio and TV era, there was something of a gentleman's agreement between politicians and the press that if a politician misspoke, they were given the opportunity to "clean up" their words.


Donald Trump tweets "#Covfefe" (64%) defeats Joe Biden tries to call the deceased Jackie Walorski up to the stage (36%)

Some reader comments on this matchup:

  • J.L. in Glastonbury, CT: I went with Jackie Walorski because it was kind of appalling to forget she died... Biden's cheese may still be on the cracker, but no surprise his opponents think otherwise. Covfefe was just a late night typo in a torrent of intentionally divisive lies. If Trump could have been credibly accused of intoxication, I might have thought more of it.

  • A.T. in Quincy, IL: I'm actually a little ashamed that I didn't remember about Walorski. I must admit, I really didn't know anything about her before the incident, nor have I troubled myself to enlighten myself since. I could argue there've been plenty of other issues to think about, both personal and political, but I really don't mean to excuse myself. It's a little beside the point. What IS the point is the incident doesn't seem to have hurt Biden all that much. I certainly don't recall much said about it since, and I would suggest one big reason is that Biden himself does not seem to have dwelt on it, but moved on to other matters. Picked himself up, dusted himself off, got going again... you'd almost think he'd some practice at this. Covfefe, on the other hand... really, need I say more?

  • M.K. in Long Branch, NJ: Walorski wins the matchup because presidential remarks are prepared by a huge communications staff while tweets are, in my opinion, trivial.

  • D.L. in Uslar, Germany: Covfefe was an easy pick. People still know what it refers to, while the Jackie Walorski comment was quickly forgotten (in fact, I briefly confused it with Biden's unattributed use of Neil Kinnock's words). Covfefe probably has no chance in the bracket, especially since it was more a case of Trump being incapable of admitting he'd made a mistake, but it clearly beats Biden's gaffe.

  • W.D. in Houston, TX: I think something can only be called a blunder if there are negative political implications for the blunderer. Covfefe did not harm Trump politically at all.


A news story about Allen's comments; a protester holds a sign that sayd 'Covfefe is unpresidented'

#1 Texas gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams on rape: "If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it." (March 26, 1990): Clayton Williams had several things going for him during his 1990 gubernatorial bid. He was wealthy and able to self-fund. He was a Republican at a time when southern Democrats (i.e., closet Republicans) were being supplanted by actual Republicans. He was folksy. And so, as late as August 1990, he led by double digits in polls.

However, over the course of the campaign, chinks started to appear in his political armor. There were rumors that he enjoyed the company of ladies of the evening. He was overtly sexist, and made clear that his opponent, Ann Richards (D), was unworthy of his consideration. And he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Texans apparently have a thing for dumb governors, because he's not the only one to be something less than a Rhodes Scholar. Heck, he's not even the only one in this portion of the bracket.

Williams' liabilities all came together on a summer day marked by unusually bad weather. When reporters asked the candidate about the forecast, he made what was apparently supposed to be a joke, observing that bad weather is like rape, "If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it." It's hard to think of a soundbite that would more thoroughly embody both misogyny and stupidity. Williams collapsed in the polls and ended up losing the election by 3 points. Richards remains, to date, the last Democrat to lead the Lone Star State.

#16 Donald Trump tweets "#Covfefe" (May 31, 2017): From the comments above, it is clear that readers are not especially impressed by this error. All we can add is that there are few things Trump hates more than to be made the butt of the joke, and it's hard to think of any single thing he did that triggered more jokes at his expense than this.

Dean screaming; A headline that says 'Marcobot Malfunctions'

#8 The Dean scream (January 19, 2004): It's too bad that's the name by which this incident is more widely known, because the other name that's sometimes used is much funnier: "I Have a Scream."

The basic story of the scream is likely familiar to readers. Dean was Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) before Bernie Sanders. That is to say, he was a progressive (from Vermont, no less) who was beloved by the kiddies. He held a consistent and solid lead in polls, at least until people started voting. The Iowa caucuses did not go well for the Governor, and he lost to John Kerry (who will be making his own appearance in this quadrant, incidentally). It is exceedingly unlikely that Dean could have won Iowa; he's a little lefty for the tastes of the Hawkeye State, even allowing for the fact that caucuses favor candidates with fervent support over candidates with broad support.

Trying to stave off his supporters' disappointment, Dean addressed a crowd from the stage of the Val-Air Ballroom in West Des Moines. And during that address, he listed future states he expected to win, following each with a "Yeah!" His voice was already worn out and scratchy and his microphone was directional, such that it didn't pick up the significant crowd noise in the room. The result was video footage that made it look like Dean was screaming into the void, over and over, like a madman. And the clip was played on national television (cable and broadcast) more than 600 times in the next 4 days.

There's an excellent chance that Dean's campaign would have faltered even without the Dean scream. His campaign was not well organized and he wasn't a great fit for most of the states that come early in the nominating process (like South Carolina). Oh, and his polling numbers were sagging for several weeks before Iowans voted. Still, even if Dean was doomed anyhow, the scream hastened the process and left him in an unrecoverable position. He suspended his campaign on February 18, just a month after his moment of ignominy.

#9 Marco Rubio repeats the same attack line four times in 2 minutes (February 6, 2016): As the 2016 primary season got underway, there were plenty of Republicans who did not want Donald Trump as their standard bearer, but who also couldn't settle on an alternative candidate. In theory, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was in the lead in the not-Trump lane, but Cruz is a deeply unpopular man, even with Republicans. So, it wasn't going to be him.

Heading into New Hampshire, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was starting to generate some excitement as the non-Trump standard bearer. After all, he was young (44), and he comes from a swing state, and he's a Latino who could potentially have brought some of those votes into the fold (never mind that the experience of Cubans and the experience of the Latinos in the Southwest, most of them Mexicans, is completely different).

But while Rubio is more likable than Cruz and Trump, perhaps, he has some liabilities. He comes off as phony and robotic. He's an intellectual lightweight. He's got a reputation for being lazy. But his biggest liability, at least on the night of Feb. 6, 2016, was New Jersey governor Chris Christie. The Governor very much wanted to be the leading alternative to Trump and Cruz, and he couldn't be that person with Rubio in his way. As a New Jerseyite, Christie has no problem with dirty pool, of course.

So, during the final debate before New Hampshirites cast their votes, on the Saturday before the primary, Christie laid a trap for Rubio, observing that the Senator was an empty suit capable only of delivering a "memorized 25-second speech." Rubio was very much thrown off his game, and proceeded to provide a stellar object lesson in what Christie was talking about, repeating the same soundbite four times in just under 2 minutes ("And let's dispel once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn't know what he's doing. He knows exactly what he's doing.") Rubio performed poorly in New Hampshire and on Super Tuesday, and his campaign ended on March 15.

Perry looking confused at a debate; Tuberville tossing a football

#4 Rick Perry can't remember which agencies he wants to defund (November 9, 2011): Note what we said above about dumb governors of Texas. According to more than one Perry insider, the reputation was especially well-deserved in his case (by contrast, George W. Bush was bad on camera, but is actually quite sharp).

Being an airhead did not stop Perry from twice running for president. And during his first campaign, the primaries arrived early, which meant that the candidates' debates arrived early. So it is that nearly a year before Election Day, the candidate found himself on a debate stage in Rochester, MI, with Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and several other upwardly mobile Republicans, answering questions from moderator John Harwood.

Like any good Reagan Republican, Perry built his career on the notion that government is bad and needs to be cut to the bone wherever possible. And the central talking point of his presidential campaign was his plan to eliminate three different federal agencies. When it came time to present his plan on the debate stage, however, he sputtered: "It's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone—Commerce, Education and the um, what's the third one there? Let's see. Oh five—Commerce, Education and the um, um..."

The other candidates on stage tried to help out, with Romney suggesting that maybe Perry was thinking of the EPA. That wasn't it, though, and finally the Texan had to concede: "The third agency of government I would do away with—the education, the uh, the commerce and let's see. I can't the third one. I can't. Sorry. Oops."

It is not great for a would-be president to be unable to name the executive departments. It is rather worse for a would-be president to be unable to enunciate the key plank of his campaign platform. Needless to say, the incident certainly did not help dispel Perry's reputation for being a numbnut, and his 2012 presidential campaign collapsed soon thereafter. He tried again in 2016, with no greater success, but he did land an appointment in the Cabinet of Donald Trump. Perry led the Department of Energy, which was, ironically, the agency whose name he could not remember on that debate stage.

#13 Tommy Tuberville misidentifies the three branches of government (November 12, 2020): When building the brackets, we did not endeavor to match up similar sorts of entries. It is just a coincidence that this matchup involves two Republicans demonstrating their third-grade grasp of civics.

As far as U.S. senators go, Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) is a pretty good football coach. Still, Southerners love football, and they love Republicans, and so that was résumé enough for him to get elected to the seat then held by Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL). Just days after the election, Tuberville gave an interview Alabama Daily News in which he showed off some of the deficiencies in the education he got at Southern Arkansas University (class of '76).

In that interview, Tuberville observed that he was looking forward to being able to raise money from his Senate office (that is, of course, illegal). He also said the U.S. fought the Nazis in order to rid Europe of socialism (obviously unaware that the National Socialist Workers Party was no more "Socialist" than the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is "Democratic" or a "Republic"). And worst of all, he described the three branches of the U.S. government as "the House, the Senate, and the executive."

Of course, this isn't the only time Tuberville has brought shame upon himself. His actions on 1/6 were also deeply problematic. Still, none of this is going to stop him from being reelected.

A bunch of title cards showing the racist things Allen said and did; A cartoon of Trump grabbing the Statue of Liberty

#5 George Allen calls his opponent's tracker a "macaca" (August 11, 2006): Virginia Republican George Allen was the favorite to keep his U.S. Senate seat heading into the election of 2006. After all, he was an incumbent, and he'd also been governor of the state. And Virginia's shift from red to blue was still underway, meaning that Republicans were not at the sort of disadvantage they'd face today.

Allen was doing well in polls, and seemed likely to defeat his opponent, former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb (D). However, at an event in Breaks, VA, Allen took offense to the fact that a Webb campaign staffer named S.R. Sidarth, a dark-complexioned man of Indian descent, was filming the proceedings. And so, the Senator popped off with this: "This fellow here over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent... Let's give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." Sidarth, incidentally, was born in Virginia.

Macaca means "monkey" in Portuguese, and has often been used as a slur against dark-skinned people. Especially by French-speaking people—such as his mother, who was born in Tunisia and was a Francophone. Allen claimed he was unaware of the meaning, and that there was no racist intent. That's nonsense. He undoubtedly heard the term from his mother at least once. In any event, many voters perceived racist intent, especially given that "macaca" was paired with that "Welcome to America" bit. Allen lost the election by just 9,329 votes, or 0.3% of the total cast.

#12 Donald Trump brags that he likes to "Grab 'em by the pussy" (2005): The actual video of Donald Trump chatting with Billy Bush was actually filmed more than a decade before it caused a scandal. But once Trump became a viable presidential candidate, someone shared it with the media, and it spread like wildfire.

The entire exchange is exceedingly vulgar; you can read it here, if you wish. However, the part that was repeated ad infinitum, and that we run unredacted because it was broadcast on network TV multiple times, was this brag from Trump: "You know, I'm automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything... Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything."

Bush lost his job when the tape went public. As to Trump, well, it was obviously not a fatal blow. However, this was far and away the closest his 2016 campaign came to going off the rails. And it's certainly the only time he's publicly apologized for any of his (many) misdeeds. It's also fair to imagine that some of the voters who were turned off in 2016 remained so in 2020, and that contributed to his defeat at the hands of Joe Biden.

The ballot for this round is here. If you have comments on any or all of these matchups, and why you voted as you did, please send them here. (Z)

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