It's not what he said. It's how it will sound when edited.
The journalist Michael Kinsley observed that “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s sin Tuesday provided a modern corollary.
Speaking at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Christie seemed to invite the controversy by saying, “I gotta tell you the truth, I’m tired of hearing about the minimum wage, I really am.”
On Twitter, Democrats instantly seized on the quote fragment. The Democratic National Committee and Democratic Governors Association swiftly blasted out statements in condemnation, as opposition research group American Bridge posted it to YouTube. “Our hearts are breaking,” said DNC Press Secretary Mike Czin in a statement. “Poor guy. It must be almost as tiring for him as it is for the millions of Americans who work full time but live in poverty because the minimum wage is too low.”
In proper context, Christie’s statement fit within the Republican Party’s longstanding position on the minimum wage: He argued the focus should be on creating minimum wage jobs, not raising the pay scale for the least-paid. “I don’t think there’s a mother or father sitting around a kitchen table tonight in America who are saying, ‘You know honey, if my son or daughter could just make a higher minimum wage, my God, all our dreams would be realized,” Christie said. “Is that what parents aspire to for their children?”
But that more nuanced argument is not something most voters will hear this fall—or when Christie mounts a likely bid for the White House in 2016. Instead they are likely to hear “I’m tired of hearing about the minimum wage,” over and over and over again thanks to his Democratic foes, especially if Christie becomes the Republican Party’s nominee.
The moment was not unlike Mitt Romney’s 2012 line that “I like being able to fire people” when they do poor work—a tenet of the free market, but an statement that played into the insensitive rich guy narrative Democrats and his GOP primary opponents had already invested millions in developing.
In the modern campaign, where every public or private utterance is liable to be recorded or tweeted by a reporter or opposing tracker, Christie’s unforced error Tuesday wasn’t saying something wrong. It was saying something that could be edited to sound like something else entirely.