Politicians Wary of Gotcha Moments

“Smile!  You’re on Candid Camera!”  The show that used to immortalize people’s unexpected reactions and verbal slip-ups seems rather quaint now.

That show was only on one network and it only aired once a week.

Now, thanks to video sites like YouTube, a politician’s verbal gaffe can go viral, get wall-to-wall cable news coverage, and live forever, popping up whenever an opponent needs to make a point about how out of touch his or her opponent is.

It’s made some folks quite nervous.  “If there's one thing that unites Democratic and Republican politicians today, it's their deathly fear of being caught in a YouTube moment,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, “A really stupid comment can cost somebody a career.”

Politicians and political parties have taken notice.  And while no candidate wants to get caught in a “gotcha” moment, many have been more than willing to use an opponent’s mistake to their advantage.

As we get closer to November, more and more politicos are finding the Internet to be a cruel mistress.  In Colorado’s Republican Senate primary, candidate Ken Buck found himself on the defensive after telling conservatives that they should vote for him, “because I do not wear high heels.”  That statement went viral, and now Buck’s opponent, Lt. Gov. Jane Norton is using it in a television ad.  Buck is now on defense, claiming that Norton started the verbal fisticuffs by previously saying that he wasn’t “man enough” for the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is embracing the power of the gotcha in his race against upstart Republican candidate Sharron Angle.  She was captured on camera at a campaign event saying that as a U.S. Senator “it’s not my job” to help develop jobs in the state of Nevada.  That clip is now on YouTube for all Nevadans to see and evaluate.

The digital “gotcha” moment may be new, but its roots stretch back to the days when the Internet was in its infancy.  The campaign “tracker,” an individual tasked with filming the opponent at every event, first began during the 1996 presidential campaign in the early primary state of New Hampshire.  Democrats used a camera in the crowd to follow every movement of then Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., hoping to catch a verbal slip-up.  Now national campaigns all employ the digital sleuths.

Tracking candidates flew into the digital age with the birth of the “macaca moment.”  In 2006, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., was caught on camera calling campaign tracker S.R. Sidarth “macaca,” an Indian-American slur.  The clip spread like wildfire on the Internet and Sen. Allen lost his reelection campaign.

The Democratic National Committee has started to solicit these types of videos, urging supporters to send in candid moments to point out “misinformation, lies and double-speak.”  So far the RNC has no plans to initiate a similar program, but they often use viral clips in advertisements against opponents.

The YouTube gotcha moment isn’t all bad say some political operatives.  “They’ve served as an equalizer and opened up events that might not otherwise be openly viewed,” said one Democratic official.  She said that openness helps voters make an informed decision about whom they choose to represent them in Washington.

Sabato says that while they are important; the on camera slip up should not be the only metric people use for evaluating candidates. “We need to recognize that everybody goofs from time to time, and all of us want to be judged in the context of our entire careers – not just on the basis of our worst moments.”

Anything less would be neither fair, nor balanced.

Here are some more “hot mic moments” that got politicians in hot water:

1) Specter town hall

Date/location: August 11th, 2009, Lebanon, PA

Description: Republican turned Democrat Arlen Specter was lambasted by a man claiming the senator wouldn’t let anyone speak at a Lebanon, PA townhall. “One day God is going to stand before you, and he is going to judge you!” the man predicted.

2) Steele Afghanistan comment

Date/location: July 1, 2010, Fundraiser, Noank, CT

Description: RNC Chairman Michael Steele got a tongue-lashing from his own party after video surfaced of him playing the war blame game. “This was a war of Obama’s choosing,” Steele told the audience at a Noank, CT fundraiser. “This was not something that the United States actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.”

3) Barney Frank town hall

Date/location: August 18th, 2009, Dartmouth, MA

Description: When a woman compared President Obama and health care proposals to the policies of Nazi Germany, Frank responded by asking, "On what planet do you spend most of your time?" and declared she was spouting "vile, contemptible nonsense."

4) ACORN undercover/pimp prostitute

Date/location: Video surfaced September 10, 2009, Baltimore, MD ACORN branch

Description: Two Baltimore ACORN employees were caught on camera giving conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles – posing as a pimp and prostitute –advice on how to set up a prostitution ring and evade the IRS. “Train them to keep their mouths shut,” one employee told them about underage girls.

5) Black Panthers at polling place

Date/location: November 4, 2008, Philadelphia PA

Description: Two Black Panthers, one brandishing a nightstick, were caught on film standing guard at a downtown Philadelphia, PA polling place. The video resurfaced in 2010 when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted to send a letter to DOJ demanding why the voter intimidation case against the Black Panthers had been dropped.

6) Biden on health care

Date/location: March 23rd, 2010, White House

Description: As the President prepared to sign the health care bill into law, Biden was caught on an open mike telling the Commander in Chief, "This is a big f*cking deal."

7) Biden vs. frozen custard manager

Date/location: June 25, 2010, Kopps Custard, outside of Milwaukee, WI

Description: Biden came up with his own version of your mother's 'if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all' when a Milwaukee, WI store manager offered him custard on the house in exchange for lower taxes. "Say something nice instead of being a smart ass all the time" he said.

8 ) NASA/Muslim comment

Date/location: Pretaped June 17th, 2010, Doha, Qatar; Aired on "Talk to Al Jazeera" June 30th, 2010

Description: On a trip to the Middle East marking the anniversary of President Obama's visit to Cairo, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden revealed that the president had tasked him with finding a way to reach out to the Muslim world to "help them feel good" about their historic contribution to math and science.


Date/location: March 27, 2010 NAACP banquet

Description: Shirley Sherrod was forced to resign after conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video showing racially charged comments the USDA official had made about white farmers. Secretary Vilsack offered the disgraced Sherrod a new job once the uncut video proved the comments were part of an anecdote and not meant to be racist. After the NAACP's Ben Jealous tweeted that he was "appalled" by the comments, the organization released a statement saying they had been "snookered" by Breitbart and Fox News.

10) Helen Thomas on Israel

Date/location: June 4, 2010, White House

Description: A rabbi filmed and posted an interview in which Helen Thomas says Jews should "get the hell out of Palestine." Her comments triggered a fiery barrage of criticism that ultimately forced the perennially outspoken dean of the White House press corps to retire.

11) Feingold's listening session

Date/location: January 11, 2010 "Listening Session," Pewaukee, WI

Description: "We are fed up, and you better get your resume ready!" a grandmotherly woman told Feingold at a Pewaukee, WI 'Listening Session' on health care. Republican businessmen Terrence Wall, seeking the WI Republican nomination, leveraged the footage by using it in an ad declaring "Feingold isn't listening anymore."

12) Brad Sherman on patriotism

Date/location: July 7th, 2009 townhall

Description: Asked about whether his support of Israel conflicts with his committee responsibilities, Sherman responded, "Nobody challenges my patriotism!"

13) Joe "You lie" Wilson

Date/location: September 9, 2009, Obama's health care speech to Congress

Description: When South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted "You lie!" as the President addressed immigration in a speech to Congress, the refrain bounced around Washington's political echo chamber for weeks.

UPDATE (7/26 7:30 PM)

Colorado Senate candidate Ken Buck is in hot water over a second "gotcha" moment - less than two weeks after the Republican's comment that conservatives should vote for him "because I do not wear high heels" went viral. This time, Buck's base was on the chopping block. A Democratic tracker rolled an audio tape of the candidate saying, "Will you tell those dumbasses at the Tea Party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I'm on the camera?" Buck explained to Fox News that he was not condemning the Tea Party as a whole. "It was a few people in a few instances that focus so much on the birther issue," he said. "That's where I was expressing my frustration. I could have used more artful terminology, but the frustration remains the same. We need to get back to the issues."

Fox News' April Girouard contributed to this report.

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