John Baer: Can Corbett pass 'poli-gaffe' test?

Posted: July 21, 2010

AS TOM CORBETT'S jobs gaffe lingers through week two of exposure, here are the questions: Do pols' ill-phrased or controversial comments reflect an inner candor, or are they overblown by opponents and conflict-oriented media?

Are these "poli-gaffes" little tracts of truth that pols believe? Or are they, in a time of instant/ widespread "news," so common they're inconsequential?

Mostly, it depends on the pol and the timing.

When Sarah Palin says that peaceful Muslims should "refudiate" plans for a mosque near the site of the World Trade Center, it reflects some truth about her grasp of her native tongue, whatever that might be.

When Ed Rendell says that seniors need slots to fill their "very gray lives," it shows that even successful pols slip off the pander-go-round.

When Joe Biden says that his home state of Delaware has so many people from India you can't go into a Dunkin' Donuts "unless you have a slight Indian accent," it shows that even very successful pols get brain-freeze.

I doubt that Palin fans much care what non-words she utters. And neither Rendell's nor Biden's remarks, both said in campaigns, cost them office.

Is Corbett different?

Well, the Republican attorney general leading in the race for governor picked a lousy time to suggest that the unemployed avoid jobs as long as there are unemployment benefits and to offer his view that "the jobs are there."

He said that on July 9, and it hangs around his neck like an albatross, thanks to the relentlessness of Democratic opponent Dan Onorato, extensive news coverage and his own reluctance to re-engage.

Corbett sought to soften the remarks, saying he wasn't insensitive to the vast majority of the unemployed but was merely repeating anecdotal information he'd heard about some unemployed.

Does anyone doubt that some unemployed, a small minority, fit in Corbett's category? Doesn't matter.

He's a GOP candidate in a state where the unemployment rate is 9.2 percent, up a full point from last year (Philly's is 11 percent), while most Republicans in Washington oppose extending unemployment benefits pushed by Democrats.

Bad timing.

Worse, Corbett's campaign curled up in a ball as Onorato aggressively opened fire with ammo, such as saying that Corbett doesn't understand the economy, toes a party line and, according to a new Onorato Web site,, is, well, clueless.

It's reminiscent of John McCain in '08 calling the economy "fundamentally sound," which suddenly made Barack Obama's campaign sounder.

Corbett's campaign manager did not return a phone call. Corbett's campaign Web site last night showed "no upcoming events," and the last news release listed was, ironically, "Tom Corbett Visits With Business Owners in Downtown Elizabethtown," from the July 9 event at which he made the controversial remark.

John Brabender, Corbett's media adviser, tells me that there's "no impact" on Corbett's lead in polls since the remark and that the election will not be "a referendum on unemployment extensions" but on who's a better "change agent" to reform Harrisburg, cut taxes and create jobs.

Still, Corbett mishandled this mini-crisis in ways that, at a minimum, suggests a political soft-spot in a candidate put forth as a tough top cop.

I don't think Corbett believes that the unemployed sit home to collect $309 a week rather than look for a job. I also don't believe Corbett's as good on his feet as he should be after years in public life and two statewide campaigns.

Philly Democratic analyst Larry Ceisler says this incident focuses concerns that Corbett is simply a prosecutor ill-equipped on economic issues in a campaign "about the economy and jobs."

Pittsburgh GOP analyst Bill Green says Corbett's "fortunate this happened in July."

They're both right. Question is, can Onorato keep Corbett's comments fresh, put them in an ad and sway voters, or can Corbett change the conversation or "refudiate" his words before voters pay attention in the fall campaign?

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