Quotes and context

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HuffPo has a post today entitled "Michele Bachmann: 'I Haven't Had a Gaffe'", in which they take Bachmann to task for what she said to Greta van Susteren in a recent Fox News interview. This is easy bait for those of us who are appalled at the prospect of Candidate Bachmann and who have delighted at the many gaffes that she has managed to have in the course of her presidential campaign. But note the context from which the 'I haven't had a gaffe' quote was pulled:

As people are looking at the candidate that is the most conservative and the most consistent candidate, I've been that candidate. I haven't had a gaffe or something that I've done that has caused me to fall in the polls. People see in me someone who's genuinely a social conservative, a fiscal conservative, a national security conservative and a Tea Partier. I'm the whole package.

Context is crucial here. I believe that Bachmann cannot truthfully claim that she hasn't had a gaffe, but I also believe that it is absolutely possible for Bachmann to truthfully claim that she hasn't had a gaffe that has caused her to fall in the polls. We hear a lot about, say, Rick Perry's and Herman Cain's gaffes (and other shenanigans) that have clearly been linked to their drops in the polls; the same can't be said as definitively for Bachmann — unless I've missed something in the news recently, that is, but the point still holds that HuffPo is taking Bachmann to task for the first claim (that she hasn't had a gaffe) and not for the second claim (that any gaffe she may have had has caused that no gaffe she had (if any) has caused her to fall in the polls). [Thanks to GKP for the correction here.]

Let's assume the second claim is basically truthful. What this means to me is the following: some signficant subsets of Perry's and Cain's supporters have noted their gaffes, have thought them to be significant indicators of Perry's and Cain's unworthiness as candidates, and have dropped their support; on the other hand, no significant subset of Bachmann's supporters have noted her gaffes or thought them to be significant indicators of her unworthiness as a candidate. Given the significance of the gaffes on all sides, this says more to me about Bachmann's supporters than it does about Bachmann.


  1. Janice Byer said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 2:06 pm


  2. GeorgeW said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

    So, to what does she attribute her drop in the polls, at least from her high point?

  3. Jim said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

    There's one 8-Bit Theater strip where they talk about why a totally crazy plan can't fail:

    Most plans are critically flawed by their own logic. A failure at any step will ruin everything after it. That's just basic cause and effect. It's easy for a good plan to fall apart. Therefore, a plan that has no attachment to logic cannot be stopped. The success or failure of any step will have no effect on the macro level.

    This seems like the political equivalent of that.

  4. jfruh said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 2:41 pm

    But "gaffe" is such a loaded and subjective word! Obviously she's not going to admit that, say, praising the social policies of Communist China (which she did!) is a gaffe, because she believes what she said to be true, even though stuff like that hurts her politically.

  5. Josh Treleaven said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

    Unfortuntately, this goes to show that there is a culture war, and it's not between the rich and the poor. At the least, it's a proxy war between poor cultural conservatives and poor intellectual liberals.

  6. Chris Collision said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    Yeah, I think you're reading infinitely more into this than was intended. While the string of words came out her mouth does in fact have the logical entailments you describe, she just means "I haven't had a gaffe" because, I conjecture, she believes she in fact hasn't.

    [I'd say that's a lot more reading into it than what I did. To infinity and beyond!–EB]

    I actually think she believes herself incapable of error, due to a combination of divine guidance and an exceptionally loose set of ideas about words' relation to reality.

  7. Kate said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    I'm not sure you've parsed this right. I read it as "I haven't had [a gaffe] or [something I've done that has caused me to fall in the polls]." I know this isn't strictly grammatically correct, but populist-type politicians' spoken syntax rarely is.

    [Actually, that's perfectly grammatical. I just don't think it's plausible in this instance.–EB]

  8. Kylopod said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 4:18 pm

    How do you define a gaffe? Many pundits attributed her fall to her statement that vaccines cause mental retardation. It may not be the nuttiest thing she's said, but unlike, say, accusing ACORN of funding the Census, it wasn't totally right-wing nutty. (Anti-vaccine views are somewhat common on the fringe left.) And thus, even Rush Limbaugh claimed she had "jumped the shark."

    These days, "gaffe" seems to mean nothing more than "saying something that immediately damages one's candidacy," and of course it's highly subjective because there are usually many possible explanations for rising and falling poll numbers, but the media likes to latch onto these "gaffes" because they're just more fun. So, broadly, I'd define a gaffe as "anything a candidate says that the media perceives will do damage to his or her candidacy."

  9. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

    I agree with Kylopod: the clause [that has caused me to fall in the polls] is most probably modifying [something that I've done] and not [a gaffe]. This does mean that [something that I've done] is complementing [I haven't had], which by itself would be ungrammatical, but seems more grammatical when coordinated with [a gaffe]. Can anyone tell me the reason why this might be?

  10. Margaret S. said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

    Does it seem normal to all of you to speak of “having” a gaffe? Not to me. I would collocate it with “commit” (or maybe “make”).

  11. Lance said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 7:02 pm

    I think it might be possible–albeit really non-compositional–to interpret her as actually intending something like

    I haven't had a gaffe, or done something wrong; you know, the sorts of things that cause you to fall in the polls

    In which case the "I haven't had a gaffe" headline would be an accurate summary of her intent.

    Now, I can't know that that's what she intended, but still, it seems like a possibility.

  12. Rebecca said,

    November 18, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

    The bit about this story that caused me to do a double take was not the part in bold above, but rather the lead in sentence in the talkingpointsmemo.com article: "Well at least I haven’t gaffed, says Michele Bachmann,"

    Verbing a noun is nothing new, but I hadn't heard it done with "gaffe" before. As far as I could hear, Bachmann doesn't actually use it as a verb. That bugs me a bit that tpm would use what to me is a novel form, rather than a direct quote, but then, how would the tpm writer know I find it novel, if it's normal usage for them.

  13. Victor said,

    November 19, 2011 @ 3:47 am

    Bachmann is absolutely correct–she's done nothing that caused her decline in the polls. What she fails to comprehend is that she's done nothing to cause her rise in the polls either. Her poll numbers are simply the casualty of the whims of the fickle self-described "conservatives". They had no reason to like Bachmann, but they also had no reason to like Perry, Cain or Gingrich–except that they are all NOT Romney. As for the gaffes, Bachmann had the rest of the field well-gapped until Cain started getting more questions.

  14. mike said,

    November 19, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

    If nothing else, the HuffPo take on Bachmann's cite shows that they're inclined to give her statement the interpretation that is least advantageous to her. I'm no fan of Bachmann, but I do think that HuffPo at times (er, perhaps often) engages in precisely the kind of gossip-magazine spin that certain other media outlets practice from the other side of the political spectrum. In other words: I would never take a HuffPo headline at face value. Since, bringing the discussion back around to linguistics, haha, it's always an exercise in pragmatics.

  15. DRK said,

    November 24, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

    Seems to me that her drop in the polls coincided with Perry's rise. The Tea Party just found someone they liked better.

    That was around the time of the vaccine thing, true, but it was also a time where there was a little ripple of uneasiness about her statement that she specialized in tax law because her husband told her to, and wives should submit to their husbands. Maybe the Tea Party was just becoming disenchanted with her for a number of things, and look, here's this guy with perfect hair! Surely he will save us!

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