Jay B Gaskill


Definition of GAFFE – “a social or diplomatic blunder


Both the incumbent president and the challenger have committed gaffes.



“I should tell my story. I’m also unemployed.” —Mitt Romney, speaking in 2011 to unemployed people in Florida.

“Join me in welcoming the next president of the United States, Paul Ryan.”

“I tasted a beer and tried a cigarette once, as a wayward teenager, and never did it again.”

“I’m not familiar precisely with what I said, but I’ll stand by what I said, whatever it was.”



“When I meet with world leaders, what’s striking — whether it’s in Europe or here in Asia…” – said in Hawaii

“The reforms we seek would bring greater competition, choice, savings and inefficiencies to our health care system.”

“On this Memorial Day, as our nation honors its unbroken line of fallen heroes — and I see many of them in the audience here today…”

“I’ve now been in 57 states — I think one left to go.”



Gaffes are usually forgiven; Gotchas are usually not.

In politics, Gotchas are the gaffes trumpeted by one’s political opponents who exploit otherwise private statements by “leaking” them to the public.

The disclosure of President Obama’s off-mike whisper to the Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev, asking him to tell Putin that the US will have “more flexibility” in East European missile policy after Mr. Obama’s reelection was a classic gotcha. So was the revelation of Governor Romney’s unscripted presentation to a gathering of Florida donors in which he said that 47 percent of the electorate is so dependent on government that Obama has a lock on their votes.


Policy blunders are the much bigger deal.  In the last half century, I submit that five such blunders will stand out among the rest. Here are my candidates for the most valuable negative examples:

JFK’s 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco — the aborted liberation of Cuba, abandoned when air support was cancelled by President Kennedy, gave rise to Russian miscalculation, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and a narrowly averted WWIII. In a rare display of presidential humility, John Kennedy wryly accepted full responsibility for his mistake (“Victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.”)[1]

LBJ’s Two Wars – both failures — the doubling down on the Vietnam engagement, escalation without victory, coupled with a massive war on poverty (the Great Society), both financed with borrowed money, gave rise to an addictive pattern of borrowing for both domestic and defense spending (why argue about guns vs. butter when you can ignore paying for them in real time) that threatens to bankrupt the USA decades later.[2]

Richard M Nixon’s self-inflicted failure as he inherited an unpopular war, doubled down on paranoia, sponsored clandestine government harassments of his political opponents, engineered a cover up, he set in ply a chain of events that led to his own removal from office, and weakened the prestige and trustworthiness of the presidency itself, for those who would follow him.[3]

Bill Clinton and George W Bush’s real estate loan deregulation and liberalization policies – the federal push to get people into unaffordable housing with unrepayable loans, was a disaster in the making. The firewall protections guarding traditional banks against speculation were removed, starting with the effective repeal of the safeguards of the Glass–Steagall Act under President Clinton. Then, under both Presidents Clinton and Bush II, the expansion of under-secured real estate loans by Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (FHLMC), known as Freddie Mac and The Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA), commonly known as Fannie Mae, stoked the housing/banking/financial crisis of 2008 AND the bubble, the banking collapse, the bailouts, the debt explosion leading to the real risk of depression, even now.[4]

The Affordable Health Care Act of 2010 (Obama Care) – a massively bureaucratic and immensely costly attempt to redo the entire health care delivery system in the USA was rushed into law without adequate discussion or vetting.  This was done in the middle of a deep, intractable recession (trending far too close to depression), in the tragically naïve assumption that a robust recovery would be well underway before the considerable tax load of this measure was inflicted on the economy.  At this writing, the severity of the current economic stagnation is compounded by the prospect of increased tax burdens and fiscal uncertainty under Obama Care. [See the cited New York Times piece[5]  and for the cost load note the Naill Ferguson – Paul Krugman dustup described by Patrick Louis Knudsen of the Heritage Foundation.[6]

In all this, timing matters; details matter.  Policy blunders, like most other human errors, originate in good intentions. But these good intentions are coupled with the concentration of great power in the hands of leaders infected with hubris, an often toxic mix that leads to the neglect of important details, and invites blithe inattention to the law of unintended consequences.

Put simply, pride and hubris encourage neglect.  The sheer scales of these five blunders and their consequences suggest a series of huge train wrecks seen in slow motion. The damage done by such blunders always lasts longer than the careers of their architects who are, in any event, held harmless from liability.

Have you noticed that our leaders’ egos are always involved in policy blunders?  One signature of the listed blunders is the evasion of personal accountability for their failure.  With the possible exception of JFK, we can search in vain to detect any real sense of accountability by Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Clinton, Bush or Obama.  Even JFK, when confronted with the nail biting crisis of nuclear war over Russian Atomic bomb loaded missiles in Cuba, declined to connect the dots with his earlier failure at the Bay of Pigs.

This is why I propose that we call these blunders, Vainwrecks.

Which brings me to the matter of character:  If we were to fall under the spell of the dominant media spin, this presidential race is between Mr. Cool and Mr. Square, between Mr. man-of-the-People and Mr. Man-of-the-rich.  But if we are to read just a bit beneath the surface, we might see a race as one between Mr. excessively vainglorious and Mr. excessively reserved.

We might ask ourselves – Does any of that actually matter?

We can reasonably expect any major aspiring leader to have earned a good measure of justified self-confidence, based on competence and experience.  [That was the case for that charisma-challenged rich guy, Franklin D Roosevelt.]

And we can reasonably hope that all such leaders have a measure of wisdom and character.

I need to use the term hope only because these are two traits the absence of which rarely become evident until after the fact.  How often someone we thought was a true friend turns out to be much less under stress? Character is manifest only when there are pressures to act otherwise that are resistedWisdom is manifest only when an easy, flawed decision is rejected in favor of a better choice, even if the better path is more difficult[7].

Monumentally challenging policy issues will face the man who is sworn in a POTUS on January 20th, 2013.  This country will desperately need leadership, character and wisdom in 2013 and in the years following.  If there are to be practical, bipartisan solutions, they will come from that president.  If there are no practical, bipartisan solutions, we will not fare well.

In the end it’s not about the gaffes or the gotchas or who is a better or more charismatic campaigner. It’s about policy, character and leadership. And for the last two criteria, isn’t it about time we gave them a try?




Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law


Links, forwards and quotations with attribution are welcome and encouraged.  For everything else, please contact the author via email at law@jaygaskill.com .


[1] Lesson: When dealing with thugs, showing weakness is dangerous.

[2] Lessons: Don’t get into a shooting war without deciding who your real opponent is, and especially without a plan to actually win; don’t attempt to finance a major war and a major domestic spending initiative on credit and fiat money.

[3] Lessons: Don’t get angry at opponents; if you do, don’t show it; and never, never use a powerful federal position to steal opponents’ secrets, especially via a burglary; and whatever you do, don’t make matters worse by trying a cover up.

[4] Lesson: Don’t subsidize or bail out speculation and don’t allow speculation to infect the traditional banking sector.  Speculators are entitled to fail and the rest of us are entitled to remain insulated from their failures.

[5] New York Times, September 25, 2012‘Redistribution’ Debate Has a Gray Area By Eduardo Porter.  Mitt Romney may be right about President Obama’s Robin Hood tendencies. Future historians could well conclude that Mr. Obama led the biggest redistribution of wealth in decades. The Affordable Care Act, which levies new taxes on the wealthy to expand access to health care for the near poor, seems on track to become the biggest increase in government redistribution since the Johnson administration. According to the Tax Foundation, it will raise $52,000 in new taxes on average from families in the richest 1 percent of the population, to pay for some $250 to $2,000 in benefits on average for American families in the bottom half of income by 2016.

[6] Spending is how government programs and agencies do what they do. “In a fundamental sense, the federal government is what it spends,” says longtime budget expert Allen Schick. So it is with Obamacare. Its core is a pair of huge new entitlements: health insurance subsidies and expansion of Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. They will add $1.683 trillion in new spending from now through 2022, according to CBO’s latest estimate (which helpfully isolates these components in a stand-alone table). Even after including $515 billion in associated tax hikes, the net cost increase totals nearly $1.2 trillion.


[7] There is a reason that political leaders for several decades have persisted in neglecting the growing tide of public indebtedness. After the early delusional period expired – during which politicians actually believed that growth alone could solve the deficit – their encounter with reality was too much.  Character demanded more than they dared deliver.

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