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What’s wrong with what Romney said: from Thurston Howell to pandering

A dizzying list of the most dramatic problems.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaking to reporters in Los Angeles, Calif., Monday night.

You know by now that an unauthorized tape emerged over the weekend of remarks by Mitt Romney at a private fund-raiser in May in which he told the donors that he had no chance of winning the votes of the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax because those are people  “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…”

There are so many things wrong here that it’s dizzying. I’ll try to dash off a few of the most dramatic problems.

The reinforcement: Every candidate has some negative elements of his public persona that he needs to overcome. The worst blunders are when the politician reinforces the negatives. Romney’s statement reinforces his negatives nine ways from Sunday. For example:

The Thurston Howellness: Thurston Howell III was the snobby rich guy on “Gilligan’s Island.” David Brooks headlined his brilliant, rueful takedown of Romney this morning “Thurston Howell Romney.” When you are a child of privilege, educated at Stanford and Harvard, worth $250 million and you need votes from people who are worth considerably less, you need to constantly avoid saying or doing anything that suggest you look down on poor people. Oy.

The not-intended-for publication-ness: You can, if you choose (and I do sort of choose) to feel some sympathy for the fishbowl in which candidates must live, and they must live with the possibility that anything they say, even in supposedly private, off-the-record meeting, might go public and blow up on them. But tough luck. When you are someone like Romney, whose demeanor in public conjures a phony air, things like this that you say when you think the public won’t find out about them are all the more alluring because they will seem so much more genuine.

The setting. It was the Boca Raton mansion of a private equity magnate at a $50,000 a plate fund-raiser. Nuff said?

The facts. In the age of fact-checking, Romney has developed a reputation for cheating on facts. His campaign staff has unfortunately said on the record that the campaign is not being run for fact-checkers. While it is roughly true that 47 percent of households pay no federal income tax, the least effort to get a little context on that puts it quickly in the category of “true lie.” A big chunk of those 47 percent pay federal payroll (FICA) taxes. A big chunk of them pay no income taxes because they are retirees living on Social Security. (And be careful Mr. Romney, the elderly are a key Republican voting group.) The pay-no-income-taxes lump also includes students, wounded vets. Well, you get the idea. By lumping them all together, Romney characterizes them all as “moochers” (to borrow a word from the Brooks column).

The snobbery: There’s nothing in Romney’s characterization of the 47 percent to suggest that any of them are trapped in hard lives and need a boost or even an opportunity. He portrays them as essentially having chosen to be poor so they can sponge off people like himself and the others in the room.

The pandering: Because he has changed his positions on so many things to the currently acceptable Republican position on everything, Romney carries reputational baggage as a panderer. Now listen to the question to which Romney was responding, and think about his answer, and ask yourself whether he comes across as a guy willing to say what he thinks the person whom he’s talking wants to hear. Here’s the question:

“For the past three years, all everybody’s been told is ‘don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’ How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself?”

The lame explanation: Late last night, Romney decided to see if he could exercise some damage control by facing the media to explain why he said what he said. He acknowledged that his remark was “inelegantly phrased,” then offered this totally unconvincing version of what he wishes he had said: “At a fundraiser, you have people say ‘Governor, how are you going to win this?’ And so I respond, well, the president has his group, I have my group. I want to keep my team strong and motivated. And I want to get those people in the middle. That’s something which fund-raising people who are parting with their moneys are very interested in knowing is ‘can you win or not?’ and that’s what this was addressing.”

Other takes

Steve Kornacki of Salon takes the incident as evidence that Romney is a “uniquely self-destructive candidate.”

Romney supporter William Kristol of the Weekly Standard calls the Romney remarks “arrogant and stupid,” and works in a parenthetical suggestion that Romney drop out and allow conservatives have the Ryan-Rubio ticket they deserve.

If you need to start over and hear the tape of the Romney off-the-record remarks and then the late last-night “clarification,” Chuck Todd of NBC recaps it and has the audio and the video in the first few minutes of the video below:

While Romney’s 47-percent remark is still reverberating, more video from the same fund-raiser is emerging, including one in which Romney tells the donors that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to remain an unsolved problem: “We sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”