Mitt Romney’s Wawa gaffe and the perils of swing states

A video of Mitt Romney describing his fascination with Wawa stores has been making the rounds this week, particularly among people already disinclined to be charitable to the Republican nominee. In it, the former Massachusetts governor speaks about the convenience chain in a manner akin to a child describing a car-wash:

Where do you get your hoagies here? Do you get them at Wawas? I went to a Wawas — anybody been there? … I went to Wawas, and I went in to order a sandwich, you press the little touch-tone key pad. You touch that, and the sandwich comes out. Touch this, touch this, go pay the cashier, there’s your sandwich! It’s amazing!

This whole thing obviously matters to you only if it confirms your worst biases against Romney. (Turns out the pol was making a point about the efficiency of private businesses.) But it can’t fail to bring to mind another pointless gaffe from the politician Romney has most often been compared to: John Kerry’s infamous trip to Pat’s in 2003, in which the Dem from Massachusetts committed the unforgivable sin of ordering his cheesesteak with Swiss cheese. What is it about Philly culture that makes politicians stumble?

Part of it is the obscure, unknowable rules that even locals can’t wrap their minds around. Why exactly is “Passyunk” pronounced the way it is? Why can you put pepper and onions on a cheesesteak, but lettuce and tomatoes are unthinkable? How do you say “jawn” differently than “John”? And, unlike New York or L.A., Philly culture doesn’t spread through mass media. Our memes stay our memes; we don’t force them on anyone else.

But a greater part of it is, well, that politicians are boobs. National candidates travel all across the country, screwing things up wherever they go. It would be impossible for them not to; there are so many small local customs in this country that only a robot (hey!) would be able to keep them all straight. But — and this is crucial — these boobs only go where they think they’re needed. We’re a swing state: Politicians mess up in Pennsylvania because they’re here pandering to Pennsylvanians. The day politicians stop committing embarrassing gaffes in Philly is the day we’ve ceased to matter on the national stage.

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