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.
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."