The Meaninglessness of "Scoring Political Points"

On Friday, President Obama gave a press conference, and in one of his answers to questions he said that "the private sector is doing fine." You may have heard about this. When I got my Washington Post on Saturday morning, I found that the editors of the capital's most important newspaper had judged this comment to be so momentous that it required not one but two separate articles devoted to it. This morning, determining that this subject required much, much more investigation, the paper had a column by Chris Cillizza explaning why this comment is so very important. Plenty of things Cillizza said are perfectly valid as far as they go, though it would have been better if he had mentioned that "gaffes" like this can't become important unless he and his colleagues decide that they're important. There are a couple of lines in his column that deserve particular notice, since they really hold the key to understanding the absurd focus on "gaffes" like this one:

Then there is the reality that gaffes such as the one Obama made Friday are quickly — and, usually, effectively — used by the other side to score political points.

Woah there, buddy. Gaffes are "usually, effectively—used by the other side to score political points"? Really? It seems to me that campaign gaffes happen at the rate of about one a week. And you think that attacks based on those gaffes are usually effective? Because it seems that most of the attempts to make hay out something the other guy said are quickly forgotten.

My guess is that Cillizza would actually rather not even know whether gaffes actually change votes. Because if it turned out they don't, then the entire foundation on which this kind of coverage is based would crumble. If actual voters didn't really care, and their decisions had nothing to do with the latest web video each campaign put out, then what would be the point of talking about it?

But that's the beauty of using "scoring political points" as the standard of judgment. It doesn't actually mean that any voters were persuaded, or that the race was changed in any meaningful way. It doesn't actually mean anything. It can mean everything or nothing, and as little as, "I decided to write a column about this." After all, if a Washington Post reporter has written a column about Mitt Romney's latest attack, then the attack has, by definition, "scored political points." It's an endlessly humming recursive cycle of bullshit.

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