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.
He risks being portrayed as an unfeeling venture capitalist willing to overlook the poor, who are struggling in the dark of the Great Recession. Not to mention that someone so admiring of Israel may imperil his ability to help forge a durable Middle East settlement. Neither is true. In fairness, on peace in the Middle East, Romney just frankly recognizes how much Obama has made the Palestinians more obdurate and less willing to compromise than they have been. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has Obama up by 50 to 45 percent among likely voters, suggesting that Romney's careless talk and the headlines that exacerbated his comment may have cost him support that he can't afford to lose.
The fact is that while there are a number of things wrong with his remarks, there are also a number of things right in his convictions about the economy and the Middle East (more on that on another occasion). Properly framed, he should keep on making them. First Romney has to acknowledge that yes, he did blunder by implying the 47 percent whom he saw as inclined to vote against him are just people who don't pay taxes or moochers who see themselves as victims, who think "government has a responsibility to care for them" and thus have no appetite for accepting their individual responsibilities. There is no way to duck this. Waffling will just make it worse.
Romney surely didn't mean to insult all those people who don't earn enough to be hit by federal income taxes but who take their responsibilities seriously, such as the elderly, the military, the disabled, and the millions devastated by the Great Recession, who month after month go on the heartbreaking search for work that is not there. It also is an insult to the vast majority of the 46 million people on food stamps, the 10.6 million drawing Social Security benefits, and the millions who are on disability.
He cannot hope to win the election if he leaves any doubt about this commitment to a safety net. It is fair to point out that when previously he said he was not concerned about the poor, he did point out that this was because of the Social Security safety net.
What Romney must do from now on with more conviction, more specifics, and more clarity is to outline just how he will get America back to work after four years of a demoralizing economy that, in American politics, is held to be the responsibility of the incumbent president. It is not enough to talk about creating 12 million new jobs in his first term, which is the common prediction of the likely course anyway. It's still "the economy, stupid" that matters, and Romney has time to spell out how he would hope to do much better than an administration fixated on government, deficits, and regulations. In a New York Times/CBS poll of likely voters surveyed from September 11-17 in Colorado, Virginia, and Wisconsin, respondents were asked, "Which comes closer to your opinion? The United States is more successful when the government emphasizes self-reliance and individual responsibility, or the United States is more successful when the government emphasizes community and shared responsibility?" Self-reliance was preferred by a few points in Colorado and in Wisconsin, and by 25 percentage points or more among Republicans. But—and here's the key—in all three states the majority of independents voted "self-reliance."
Romney's new language talks about appealing to the 100 percent. He will be doing well to reach 50 percent. But he still has a chance at reversing the weak position if he will go all out on the economy, discourage personal attacks on the president (who is well liked anyway), and always remember the injunction the British were faced with every day when World War II started, "Loose talk costs lives. Think before you talk."