By now most everyone politically engaged has heard about Democrat Senator Joe Donnelly’s eye-popping gaffe during the last Indiana Senate debate before the election on Tuesday. Squaring off against his opponent, Republican businessman Mike Braun, Donnelly attempted to show everyone how committed to diversity he is. It didn’t go well:
“Our state director is Indian American, but he does an amazing job,” Donnelly said during the debate. “Our director of all constituent services -- she’s African American, but she does an even more incredible job than you could ever imagine.”
Watching it is even more painful than reading it. Being from Indiana and following him for years, I can attest to the fact that Donnelly has never been much in the way of an articulate speaker. But this is particularly bad.
Donnelly explained himself in a statement most likely written by someone else (most likely safer that way):
"I misspoke, I meant to say ‘and’ instead of ‘but,’” Donnelly said.
Now, it’s hard to say whether the gaffe will do much to affect what is a very tight Senate contest in Indiana. The media, as expected, has gone out of its way to protect Donnelly and bury the story, given the D that follows his name. Even Braun pointed out accurately:
“Had it happened on the other side, I think it would be getting a lot more attention.”
Obviously, I think any fair-minded person would give Donnelly the benefit of the doubt and realize his words didn’t come out the right way, but that the underlying premise of his words was appropriate.
But what makes this verbal disaster so delicious is to realize that Donnelly has his Senate seat largely because he was petulantly unwilling to extend that same fair-minded benefit of the doubt to his opponent in 2012.
Locked in a tight race with Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock, who had defeated Indiana legend Richard Lugar in the primary, the two squared off in their Senate debate. There, discussing abortion in the case of rape, Mourdock offered the following response:
“I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
Taking those words at face value, it certainly sounds as though he is saying that God ordains or approves of rape as a legitimate method of conception. You know, kind of like Donnelly sure sounded like he was saying it that his campaign staff are capable of overcoming their racial deficiencies of being Indian and black to do a fine job. Joe wants us to excuse that mistake and not hold it against him. So how did he respond to Mourdock, who clearly was attempting to point out that every life has God-given worth even if conceived in a horrific act, in 2012?
He trashed Mourdock and shamelessly exploited the gaffe for political gain:
“The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in, does not intend for rape to happen — ever. What Mr. Mourdock said is shocking, and it is stunning that he would be so disrespectful to survivors of rape.”
Even the libertarian candidate in the race who was there at the debate responded charitably to Mourdock. But not Donnelly. No, Donnelly was willing to slander a good man as a rape apologist if it meant he could win the race.
Now, in some small way, Donnelly’s hope of clinging to that seat may depend on his opponent being a bigger man than he was.