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4 times presidential candidates have made mistakes ... just like the rest of us

Posted September 18
Updated September 19

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson flubbed when asked about what he would do to fix problems in Syria.

While speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” talk show, Johnson received a question from co-host Mike Barnicle about how he would fix the crisis in Aleppo.

Here’s what went down thereafter:

Johnson, with a puzzled face, said he didn’t understand.

“And what is Aleppo,” Johnson asked, confused over the question.

“You’re kidding,” Barnicle replied.

“No,” Johnson said back.

“Aleppo is in Syria,” Barnicle explained. “It is the epicenter of the the refugee crisis.”

Johnson understood. “OK, got it, got it!”

And though Johnson clarified his remarks after the showing — saying he needed to educate himself more on the issue — the internet didn’t let him see the end of it. Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton made a joke about the gaffe, as did some mainstream media companies.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan rushed to his defense, explaining that Johnson is an isolationist, which is why he wouldn’t know much about foreign policy.

Johnson’s mistake, though, is far from the first that a 2016 presidential candidate — let alone any presidential nominee from throughout history — has made. Given that presidential candidates are constantly under the spotlight, it’s not surprising that they make mistakes.

In fact, this is something that those in leadership roles often face.

World leaders especially struggle to admit when they’re wrong about a subject. As The Washington Post reported back in 2015, world leaders, like Russian President Vladimir Putin or U.S. President George W. Bush, rarely find time to admit their faults because they simply convince themselves that they’re right about a subject.

“The most obvious answer is that leaders don’t think that they are wrong. Humans are really, really bad at admitting that they are wrong,” Daniel W. Drezner wrote for the Post. “It is quite easy to imagine politicians and policymakers who will be convinced of their rightness on an issue despite public opinion to the contrary.”

Those in the political realm especially don’t admit faults and mistakes because doing so would open them up to questions about their leadership, he wrote.

“A key part of leadership is projecting confidence, and admitting mistakes is a lousy way to bolster people’s confidence in one’s leadership,” he wrote. “... But when political leaders admit error, however, that’s a moment that can cause even pure partisans to doubt their loyalties. And although opponents of that political leader might be happy to see that kind of candor, they are not going to switch their vote just because a president they dislike acknowledged being wrong. So from a political perspective, even if a leader knows that he or she is wrong, a public admission of error generates zero political upside and risks alienating one’s base.”

This goes against what career and management experts suggest leaders do when they’re in a leadership role. Forbes contributor Glenn Llopis wrote that great leaders will admit their mistakes since it will help them see better opportunities in the future.

These leaders will learn “invaluable lessons,” he wrote, that they can use when they want to make decisions down the road.

“Successful leaders are transparent enough with themselves and others to admit their wrong doings so that those around them can also benefit from their learnings,” Llopis wrote. “They call this wisdom and many leaders lack it because they are too proud to recognize mistakes as valuable learning moments for themselves and others.”

Llopis also wrote the leaders who admit their mistakes also earn respect from the people they’re leading, strengthen their team, show good leadership skills through example and build a trusting culture around them.

This is clearly something that the 2016 candidates can learn from. Here are four examples of candidates making some sort of error that they can learn from and improve on down the road.

Donald Trump didn’t know Russia had gone into Ukraine

As CNN reported back in August, GOP nominee Donald Trump didn’t realize that one of the biggest world politics events over the last year (Russia invading Ukraine) had ever happened.

"He's not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He's not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want," Trump said in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos.

Stephanopoulos countered with a suggestion that Putin is already in Ukraine.

"OK — well, he's there in a certain way,” he said. “But I'm not there. You have Obama there. And frankly, that whole part of the world is a mess under Obama with all the strength that you're talking about and all of the power of NATO and all of this. In the meantime, he's going away. He takes Crimea."

Trump later clarified that he meant to say that Putin and Russia wouldn’t go into Ukraine if he was elected president, according to CNN.

The Clinton campaign responded, though, that it was worrying that the GOP nominee didn’t know Russia had invaded Ukraine.

Hillary didn’t know what the ‘C’ in her email stood for

There’s been a lot of controversy over Hillary Clinton’s emails, and whether or not they held classified information.

Well, Clinton sort of played dumb recently when it came to how her emails were labeled, according to the New York Post. Clinton, who touts her ability to understand policy and national security, said during an interview with the FBI that she didn’t realize that the letter “C” in her emails stood for confidential.

The FBI released notes from an interview Clinton gave in which she said that she thought the letter “C” actually “was referencing paragraphs marked in alphabetical order.”

Clinton later apologized for not knowing what the letter stood for, according to The Hill. She said she takes classification seriously and hoped to learn from the error of her ways in the future.

Evan McMullin nominated someone for vice president on accident

Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin may be stuck with a vice presidential pick who he initially intended to be a placeholder.

As Politico reported this week, McMullin listed “Nathan Johnson” as his VP pick in nine different states where he qualified for the ballot. Apparently, Johnson was used as a placeholder for McMullin, since he was one of the many people who were vetted for the VP pick.

But there’s a problem with this. Election officials told Politico that the independent candidate can’t pull Johnson from the ballot since some of the states have already printed their election tickets.

“If McMullin is indeed stuck with Johnson on the ballot, it marks an embarrassing setback for a candidate already struggling with a lack of national name recognition, a small budget and a late start to his race,” according to Politico. “And it provides more fodder to McMullin critics, who say his bid for president is less a serious run for higher office than an attempt at self-promotion.”

McMullin clarified the situation on his website, though. He said it’s possible that Johnson won’t want to serve as vice president and he could resign from the position. It’s also possible that voters in other states pick McMullin’s true candidate.

So McMullin, after seeing the mistake, learned from it and showed his voters there’s another possible route.

Jill Stein went to a rally … in the wrong place

As The Atlantic reported, Green Party candidate Jill Stein once showed up to a rally in Cincinnati … when the event was actually held in Columbus, Ohio.

The speech got delayed for more than two hours, as the candidate drove from one city to the other.

Stein, of course, spun it to show that she’s not a rich candidate like many of her opponents.

“This is what happens when people don't have private travel agents and private jets at their disposal. These are the issues that everyday people face when they travel,” Stein’s press secretary told The Atlantic in an email.

Though the gaffe didn’t do much to hurt Stein — she’s still in single digits in current election polls — it didn’t help her either, according to The Atlantic.

"This is really just a funny-haha sort of gaffe — entertaining but with no policy implications,” The Atlantic reported. “However, an insurgent campaign like Stein’s doesn’t have much margin for error, and she’s already been hurt by peculiar comments made by her running mate and for that matter herself. There are a lot of things you can’t control in politics, but airline tickets are usually one."

Herb Scribner is a writer for Deseret Digital Media.

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