The problem for Mitt Romney right now is that he has put his entire candidacy at risk to the point where he may not even qualify for the dismissive equation of Barack Obama that Marco Rubio formulated for the Republican faithful: "Our problem is not that he's a bad person. Our problem is that he's a bad president." Is Romney also "not a bad person, just a bad candidate"? With his "47 percent" remarks at a Republican fundraiser in May, he has given his opponent evidence to initiate a new line of attack.
Voters can forgive a candidate who stumbles in the heat of an election, trapped by "gotcha" questions from journalists, being quoted out of context in cunning TV attack commercials, and in the Twitter age, failing to appreciate that nothing that is said is secret anymore. We all know the game, and Romney has demonstrated that he is not perfect at this game.
The same can be said of President Obama. As a candidate, he ran a brilliantly smooth and targeted campaign four years ago, but even he misspoke, as they say, in what he thought was a private meeting of San Francisco liberals. When the polls suggested he wasn't appealing to rural voters, his response was to blame them for not seeing how different he was from the likes of Bill Clinton and George Bush, who had let them down. "You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them," he said. "It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustration."
This week, Jay Carney, the White House spokesman, dismissed the condescension as something from the mythic past, not to be compared to the furor over Romney's "47 percent" remark. Yet even now, fully armored and protected by four years of 24/7 press scrutiny and an army of verbal bodyguards, the president stumbles. "You didn't build that" still rankles the millions of taxpayers who have concluded that in making their way they've not had much help from the government and a lot of hindrance.
The trouble with Romney—and for Romney—is that he has etched an unappealing sketch of himself. For independent voters, he made too many flip-flops in policy to appease the right. Indeed, he had an uncanny knack for offering an easy target for his opposition: "I like being able to fire people," "I'm also unemployed," "I'm not concerned about the very poor," and "Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs." He seems to be living in another world, referring to middle income as being in the range of "$200,000 to $250,000," when the median income is more like $50,000. By the way, after four years of Obama's economic stewardship, that figure represents a dramatic decline of 10 percent and, in fact, is a strong point to Romney's case against the administration.
Such careless remarks have made it easy for the Obama campaign to get away with a program that pits "the millionaires and billionaires" against the people. It is a dishonest, divisive campaign. It's discouraging of enterprise. It does the opposite of uniting the country to deal with the current economic crisis. The argument on taxes is not just about whether the super-rich should pay more, a reasonable position which I support in a country where income and equality disparities have become more glaring than they already were. It is about whether individuals, households, and small businesses should now be seen to cross the threshold into a plutocracy when earnings reach $250,000 a year—which buys much less in metropolitan areas than in the heartland. It is outrageous to infer that aspiring to reach such a level is somehow un-American, and the Obama campaign surely must know that. Shame on them if they don't!
Instead of making this part of his own case, Romney has exposed himself to the charge that he is out of touch, out of sympathy, and clueless about the lives of the mass of Americans. But there is this to be said for him: His gaffes until this bad week have not been policy gaffes. They are embarrassments rather than indications of incompetence.