Websters defines a gaffe as a blunder but these days the word is used to describe a particular kind of blunder. It's the voicing by a politician of a private belief that hurts the politician when said publicly. As a wag put it, a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth
That's what Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue did in his recent comment questioning the ability of small farms to compete. Speaking at World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin, he observed, "In America, the big get bigger and the small go out."
This was a classic gaffe, meeting both prongs of the definition. First, there's no reason to doubt Perdue believes what he said -- and, in truth, he has a point, for many big businesses do get bigger and many small businesses do fail. Second, the reaction to his comment leaves no doubt that even if this is true, it's impolitic to say so.
An agriculture policy professor in Illinois found Perdue's remark "shocking." A congresswoman from Minnesota called it "unacceptable." The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said it was "disrespectful and irresponsible to say the least."
A writer for the Progressive opined that "If Abraham Lincoln intended the Department of Agriculture to be 'precisely the 'People's Department,' Secretary Perdue is winnowing it down to be precisely the 'Department of the People on Top.'" (https://progressive.org/…)
An Esquire scribe wrote, "It takes a rare fella to say so plainly that America is essentially a monopoly culture, and that the ultimate goal of a free market is to achieve the absolute minimal amount of actual competition -- especially to an audience of people whose livelihoods are being destroyed by those very dynamics." (https://www.esquire.com/…)
That's just a small sample of the grief Perdue took for this gaffe. He probably wishes he hadn't opened his mouth.
I don't intend to defend him. For starters, I have mixed feelings about the man generally. Yes, he has done some good things, like stopping Donald Trump from withdrawing from NAFTA in 2017 by showing him on a map which Americans would get hurt and how they had voted. But he's also done some very questionable things, like undermining two important USDA agencies by peremptorily moving them to Kansas City (https://www.dtnpf.com/…).
Moreover, with his experience in politics Perdue should have known he was putting his foot in his mouth. Precisely because small farms do have a hard time competing, with some struggling to survive, to say so without expressing sympathy for those affected by the trend made the secretary seem heartless.
If some of his predecessors had said what he said, they would have followed up by promising that the government will do more to help small farmers survive. Perdue followed up very differently -- and dug his hole deeper. "I don't think in America we, for any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability of survival," he said.
Huh? That may be true of small businesses in many industries, but it ignores the broad array of financial assistance Uncle Sam provides farmers both small and large. Perdue has to know that rightly or wrongly, small farmers think those government programs favor the big farmers and don't do enough for small ones.
All that said, and without defending Perdue, some of the criticism aimed at him was, well, over the top.
The Esquire guy's comment about "monopoly culture" and minimal competition mischaracterizes Perdue's position. He's not saying he wants to eliminate competition in favor of monopolies. He's saying you have to be a certain size to play the game. "It's very difficult," he said, "on an economy of scale with the capital needs and all the environmental regulations and everything else today to survive milking 40, 50, or 60 or even 100 cows."
Most of the critics also ignored the context in which Perdue spoke. He was responding to a reporter's question. The reporter asked, "We've seen the loss of a lot of small dairy farms in recent years. Do you think that the continued loss of small farms is inevitable or is there something that can stem the flow of that?" (https://hoards.com/…)
Perdue began his answer by saying, "No, I think the 2018 farm bill will stem the flow of that." If he had stopped there, he would have been fine. The crowd might have thought he was wrong, but they wouldn't have thought he was unfeeling.
Instead, he meandered on -- and accidentally told the truth.
Urban Lehner can be reached at email@example.com
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