By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; 8:16 AM
LONDON--The headlines here Thursday morning told it all. "Day of Disaster," read the Telegraph. "A Hypocrite Who Shames Britain," screamed the Daily Express. The subhead in the Times added context: "Brown's 'Bigot' Blunder Plunges Labor Campaign into Crisis."
Wednesday was a terrible day for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the worst so far of the British election campaign. On a campaign swing near Manchester, the embattled leader of the Labor Party encountered 66-year-old Gillian Duffy, who was out to buy a loaf of bread and, as one paper put it, ended up making "Brown Toast."
Duffy asked Brown a series of questions, including one on immigration, an issue that is as politically charged in Britain as it is in the United States. It all seemed a civil and harmless conversation. But back with his aides, an angry Brown complained about having been told to talk to her at all and then called Duffy a "bigoted woman." He forgot he was wearing a live microphone.
Brown's comment, which came a day before the third and final debate of the campaign, quickly spiraled into a full-blown calamity for the Labor Party. It was broadcast and rebroadcast all-day and overnight. The coverage could not have been more devastating. The question is how devastating it will prove for Brown and his party.
With one week left before the election, Brown has been fighting to avoid seeing his party fall into third place in the popular vote behind the Conservative Party and its leader David Cameron and the smaller Liberal Democrat Party, which has seen its fortunes rise unexpectedly on the strength of two strong debates by its leader, Nick Clegg. The bigot comment threatens to shake up the campaign once again.
Even in the most scripted of campaigns, as all modern campaign operations strive to be, there are always unscripted moments. American politics is full of them. Bob Dole's angry comment, "Stop lying about my record," aimed at George H. W. Bush after the New Hampshire primary in 1988. Or the infamous "Dean Scream" after the Iowa caucuses in 2004.
In the best of situations, such moments can reveal the humanity or sense of humor of a candidate. That was Bill Clinton's good fortune in the closing days of the 1992 New Hampshire primary, when he gave a heartfelt hug to an elderly woman who had broken down in tears as she talked about having to choose between paying for food or medicine.
Nothing said, "I feel your pain" more than the photos and video of that moment. Clinton's hug, which came at a time when his campaign was reeling over allegations of womanizing and manipulating the draft, helped him become the Comeback Kid in New Hampshire.
More often, however, these unscripted moments reinforce the negative stereotypes of a candidate--fairly or unfairly. That was the fate of Howard Dean and his famous scream the night of the Iowa caucuses in 2004.
Dean had hoped to win the caucuses and was leading in the polls during most of the final weeks of campaigning. Instead he ran a poor third behind John F. Kerry and John Edwards.
His "scream"--an exhortation to his supporters to take the fight to every state in the country--seemed to show a candidate unplugged and played to questions about his steadiness and reliability. He protested that the attention to the "scream" was unfair and unjustified, but he never recovered from that night.
Kerry had his own damaging, unscripted moment in that campaign. That was his, "I actually voted for it before I voted against it" comment about funding for the Iraq war.
That off-the-cuff remark captured exactly what George W. Bush's reelection campaign wanted to make its central argument against the Democratic nominee, that Kerry was a man of no conviction and someone who had flip-flopped on issue after issue in his Senate career. Kerry never fully shook the flip-flop label through the rest of the campaign.
Brown described himself as "mortified" by how he had described Duffy to his aides. He sought her out and spent 39 minutes apologizing and explaining and trying to extricate himself. Once he was informed that his remark had been heard around the country, he moved as quickly and as genuinely as he could to make amends. He said he had not understood exactly what she was saying. He described himself as a "penitent sinner."
He could hardly have done more.
But nothing he, his wife, Sarah, or senior Labor Party officials said in the aftermath of the incident could undo the damage of what he said. That's because the comment seemed to summon up every negative characteristic attributed to Brown during his long career in the Labor Party.
He has been described as a bully, as someone given to raging moods of anger, who blames others for his own mistakes, who despite great intellect and enormous power has acted as an insensitive and insecure, a man who brooded constantly at the slights and perceived slights at the hand of his rival, former prime minister Tony Blair.
In this campaign, Brown has sought the support of voters by emphasizing his experience in contrast to his two younger rivals. But he has been undermined by questions about his temperament and the charge that he is out of touch with ordinary people. Putting him out in front of voters like Gillian Duffy was designed to overcome those problems. It did the opposite.
The question is whether Brown's gaffe will prove his ultimate undoing. Campaigning Thursday morning, Brown tried to move past Wednesday's disaster. "Yesterday was yesterday," he told workers at a factory, without needing to say more. "Today I want to talk about the future of the economy."
Thursday's final debate, which begins at 3:30 p.m. EDT, will focus on the economy, Brown's supposed strong suit. It is all he will want to talk about. But it is the gaffe that has dominated the pre-debate commentary and now threatens to overshadow his performance in that debate and color the way the country sees him as they decide how to vote on May 6.