George Allen’s latest ‘gaffe’ (and what it says about his 2012 campaign)
On the surface, it looks like former senator George Allen (R-Va.) stepped in it again.
A local TV news reporter named Craig Melvin, who happens to be a tall, African-American man, tweeted Tuesday night that Allen greeted him by asking him: “What position did you play?” For the second time in five months.
Allen insisted in a tweet that no offense was meant; “Sorry if I offended, ask people a lot if they played sports. Grew up in football family found sports banter good way to connect,” Allen wrote in response to Melvin.
And, another local TV reporter tweeted Thursday, after the Melvin episode began making the rounds, that Allen uses the ice-breaker with him – a white man – too.
“Clearly, George Allen was not looking to offend anyone, and he responded directly to the original tweet to make sure that (Melvin) understood his thinking and understood what he was discussing,” said Dan Allen, a spokesman for the former senator.
Whether or not you believe that the situation was one big misunderstanding, it served to highlight a central question Allen must answer in his 2012 bid: Can he adapt his hail-fellow-well-met campaigning style to a minute-by-minute political world dominated by Twitter and Facebook?
It’s a question every campaign will have to face, but it is particularly relevant for Allen, given that another emerging technology — YouTube — led to his surprise defeat five years ago.
Allen’s now-famous reference to a Democratic campaign worker as “macaca” ushered in the You Tube era of politics where every moment on the trail was not only captured but available for instant — and easy — uplopading to the Internet within minutes. (The original “macaca” video has now been viewed nearly 600,000 times on YouTube.)
If YouTube was the hot new technology of campaign 2006, then Twitter is the new “it” technology of 2012. The simple fact is that, at even this early stage of the race, Allen has an army of people around him able to report anything he says (in 140 characters or less) at a moment’s notice. And the entry of former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine into the race Tuesday means Allen will have no cakewalk.
Allen’s exchange with Melvin quite simply would never have been reported a decade ago or even his 2006 campaign. But Republicans close to Allen’s campaign say, even if he’s got a good excuse for this – admittedly much smaller – gaffe, he needs to realize that everything he says will be under a microscope for the next 19 months.
In the runup to his announcement for Senate, those close to Allen made the case that he had learned his lesson from the fallout from “macaca” — that although he meant no offense by it, the way in which it was reported made him out to be a bully and that he needed to be far more careful in the future.
While the Allen forces deny that the Melvin incident is anything more than a misunderstanding, it also clearly plays into an existing narrative about the former senator that is potentially very problematic for him as he ramps up for a bid to reclaim his old seat.
All that said, a single tweet will not be the undoing of Allen’s 2012 campaign. And, in fact, it may be evidence of Allen’s operation turning a corner.
In 2006, the Allen campaign made its problem infinitely worse by trying to kill the story and jousting with reporters over their coverage of the gaffe. What started as a small story suddenly became something much bigger over the course of a few days.
This time, the campaign is taking a different tack — most notably Allen’s personal apology to Melvin via Twitter, which came well before the story even became big news.
In a perfect world, the Allen team would have liked for this to have never been an issue in the first place. But much of Allen’s problem in 2006 was not the initial comment but his reaction to the controversy it caused.
His reaction this time, at least for now, looks like it should put an end to this episode. But the controversy should alert him — again — to the political dangers of the Twitter era. If he fails to heed this latest warning, his path to the Senate could be far rockier than he originally imagined.