The Gaffe Patrol is on the job this week in Charlotte, N.C. Bob Schieffer of CBS News, a wing commander who does not ordinarily fly combat missions, got the first kill at the Democratic National Convention. When Gov. Martin O'Malley of Maryland committed a gaffe — defined as a politician unexpectedly blurting out the truth -- he suddenly flew into Mr. Schieffer's gun-sights.
"Can you honestly say," the "Face the Nation" host asked the governor, "that people are better off today than they were four years ago?"
"No," Mr. O'Malley replied, "but, uh, that's not the question of this election. The question, without a doubt, we are not as well off as we were before George Bush brought us "
Blah, blah, blah
Mr. Schieffer interrupted him with a reminder as unexpected as a burst of gunfire through the propeller of the Sopwith Camel that is the favorite pursuit plane of the Gaffe Patrol: "George Bush is not on the ballot."
The governor apparently bailed out as his own plane went down somewhere over the Eastern Shore. He was not injured, and the next morning he was back on the air with "context" and a "clarification." Everybody is "clearly better off," he said, but what he meant was that Americans "have not recovered all that we lost in the Bush recession."
What is actually clear is that this is the question that terrifies Barack Obama and his campaign. This is the question famously posed by Ronald Reagan in 1980 in his final debate with Jimmy Carter, and the question destroyed the peanut farmer from Plains. Mr. Carter, the president Mr. Obama so closely resembles, had no answer. The Obama campaign has no answer now.
The best they can come up with is that the question is not the question, and besides, it's all George W. Bush's fault. Vice President Joseph R. Biden tried this Monday in Detroit, and said he could recite a lot of good things Mr. Obama has done "if it weren't so hot."
The president and his faithful minions must move earth (heaven can wait) to prevent consideration of the question. They could expand their campaign against George W., FDR and the Democrats, even as late as Harry Truman similarly campaigned against Herbert Hoover.
Once upon a time, we called our recessions and depressions "great panics," as in the Panic of 1837 (Andrew Jackson), Panic of 1873 (Ulysses S. Grant), Panic of 1893 (Grover Cleveland) and if Mr. Obama wants to go further back than that, there was the Panic of 1819 (James Monroe). Some of the Great Panics occurred in administrations of Democrats, but President Obama could tie them to the Republicans, anyway, since few would know the difference. Monroe was even something called "Democrat-Republican." Anything to keep the subject on George W. Bush.
The biggest gaffe this week in Charlotte was committed by whoever, probably Mr. Obama himself, thought it would be a nifty idea to invite Bill Clinton to make the nominating speech. Mr. Obama reckons himself to be the greatest orator since Demosthenes (and probably better even than the honey-tongued Greek), but Mr. Clinton will remind the convention of happier days than these. Bubba had his faults, but better a loose zipper than a tight economy. His speech, which will likely be all about Bubba, will be the only "wow!" moment of the week.
Bubba has occasionally been the target of the Gaffe Patrol himself. Only this week, New Yorker magazine recalls that he is said to have once remarked to Teddy Kennedy that "only a few years ago [Barack Obama] would have been the guy carrying our bags." This is only history, as Bubba's generation lived it, but a remark like that could get a Republican pol neutered for life.
You can't blame the Democrats for trying to change the conversation to George W., or even to Herbert Hoover and Grover Cleveland, come to that. You never want to talk about rope, as FDR reminded us, in the home of a man recently on the gallows. Mr. Obama thinks he can wax golden on any subject, but he knows to keep some things out of the message.
He can unpack those famous Corinthian columns of plaster of Paris that he used as backdrop in Denver, but he doesn't want to talk about the Barack Obama of 2008. The man of hope and change is finally recognized as a delusion, a national hallucination made up of fog, mist and swamp gas. We're all awake now.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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