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

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.”

Comments (67)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/18/2012 - 11:05 am.

    With all due respect, Eric….

    This piece absolutely reeks of desperation, and frankly it’s kind of sad to see.

    The one attempt you make at using facts to make your point (the 47% that pay no fed income tax) is itself dependent on straw men, but the rest is, I’m sorry to say, just simply as pathetic an excuse for logical argument as I’ve ever seen; certainly from you.

    The setting
    The snobbery
    The pandering (I almost fell of my chair while reading that one)
    The lame

    There isn’t anything contained anywhere in there for a thoughtful response, so if you don’t mind, I’ll just play along…

    How about:

    The Ill Considered, Embarrassingly Ad Hominum Rant From A Panic Stricken, Left Wing Apologist.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 09/18/2012 - 12:55 pm.

      If my math is correct….

      The 1% certainly won’t have a problem with Mitt’s remarks, nor will the 4% of the Tea Party apologists like Swift who wouldn’t disown Mitt regardless of the position. But my guess is most of the remaining 95% might be offended.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 09/18/2012 - 03:10 pm.

      Thoughtful response to your response –

      Replace the word “left” with the word “right” in your last phrase.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 09/18/2012 - 11:07 am.

    Psychological Projection

    I would suggest that both Mr. Romney and his audience were engaging in a clear case of psychological projection,…

    which is often the case with those who were raised with very different values – values which contradict the unjustifiably privileged lives they now live.

    Mr. Romney is projecting his own internal discomfort with his, and his audience’s attitude that they are ENTITLED to the wealth they have accumulated,…

    while providing no benefit to society in general that would justify that wealth,…

    and their (unconsciously VERY uncomfortable) conviction that they are ENTITLED to continuing to increase their own wealth by impoverishing their fellow citizens,…

    by projecting their own sense of entitlement onto their fellow citizens, those of lesser means, and making themselves feel better by attacking the flaws they can’t consciously acknowledge in their own lives and lifestyles onto those others.

    Of course it doesn’t work. They still know in the depths of their own souls that there’s something very wrong with the way they live their lives and the way they’ve made their money,…

    but since they can’t honestly look in the mirror at the source of their own discomfort,…

    (nor acknowledge that they are the source of all the problems they think they can fix by forcing OTHERS to change their behavior and attitudes),…

    projecting their own flaws onto others and attacking those others for the flaws they suppose them to have feels so good, because it helps push away their own growing sense that something is quite clearly wrong with themselves.

  3. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 09/18/2012 - 11:11 am.

    Kristol is wrong as always

    Romney should drop out and let conservatives have the ticket they deserve? They have gotten the ticket they deserve. They demand ideological purity so they got themselves a panderer whose core is contempt. No one who could handle complexity and didn’t hate half the country had a hope of winning the nomination.

  4. Submitted by David Frenkel on 09/18/2012 - 11:13 am.

    Not in touch

    Mitt also admitted he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth which played well to his Boca audience. There is nothing wrong with being born wealthy but it does give someone a different perspective on life which Mitt showed in this tape. Remember his earlier comment about asked about what he though Nascar, yes I have a friend who owns a Nascar car. He is what he is even with jeans on.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/18/2012 - 11:18 am.

    What is really asinine is that a significant the 47 percent consist of the retired and working poor that the Republican party has courted assiduously. Additionally, the states that have the highest portion of people who don’t pay taxes are overwhelmingly in the Republican column.

    This is further confirmation of the intellectual bankruptcy of the fatally flawed Republican party. Is this the best that the party can come up with? The big “FU” the Republicans have given the social conservatives over the past generation with a lack of follow-through, accompanied by their disdain for the “freeloaders” now are killer reveals.

    How can you seriously think that Romney/Ryan will preserve the safety net, Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid.?

    The new slogan? “Put Grandma back to work–she’s a freeloader with no skin in the game”.

    • Submitted by Nathan Roisen on 09/18/2012 - 12:31 pm.

      I think this is exactly right. Not only is he dead wrong, but he’s dead wrong in a way that will completely alienate a vital constituency.

      As another commenter put very well, I agree that this is not so much a gaffe as a symptom of the ideological and intellectual box the Republicans have built around themselves. I am glad this is coming to light before the election.

  6. Submitted by John Edwards on 09/18/2012 - 11:32 am.

    Where Romney got the idea

    New York Times political columnist Thomas Edsall Nov. 27, 2011 writing about the Obama campaign strategy: All pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left coalition made up, on the one hand, of voters who have gotten ahead on the basis of educational attainment — professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists — and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.

    The campaign strategies are pretty clear: Romney is appealing to tax producers, Obama to the receivers. Nov. 6 will tell us if our nation becomes Greece or North Dakota.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/18/2012 - 03:08 pm.

      Seems to me that there is a lot of “Greece” in the Romney/Ryan budget. They don’t even come close to balancing the budget until 2040—adding to the debt all the while.

      As for “North Dakota”–how likely is it that the entire US will find itself at the center of an oil boom? Especially an oil boom that only works only at oil around $100/barrel? That boom is subsided by the rest of the country paying near $4 gallon for gasoline.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/18/2012 - 09:06 pm.

      Jurassic Park

      If the Republican Party keeps catering to that “white working class” you mention, they can change their symbol from the elephant to the brontosaurus.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/18/2012 - 11:32 am.

    Romney’s inconvenient truth

    Check out the Tea Party websites this morning. Romney’s “leaked” message is resonating and has energized his base. For an election that’s going to be decided by turnout, the “leaked tape” was just what the doctor ordered.

    Did you know that the videotape was recorded by the unemployed grandson of Jimmy Carter? There’s something deliciously ironic about that.

    • Submitted by Jim Camery on 09/18/2012 - 12:52 pm.

      Tea Party Apathy for Romney

      I’ve got a Tea Party neighbor out in western WI (actually, I’ve got lots of them, but only one that I can have a decent conversation with) with his I Support Walker sign still out from the summer, his Drain the Swamp Paul sign and his signs for the Madison races, but no Tommy Thompson or Romney. He said he’s going to leave those lines blank before he’d support them. He’ll get some votes but no enthusiasm. It’s religious and it class-based.

  8. Submitted by Steve Roth on 09/18/2012 - 11:32 am.

    Two additional things were fascinating…

    1.) Whenever these GOPers get caught “unplugged” its always the audience that I listen for. Like that person that asked, ““For the past three years, all everybody’s been told is ‘don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” – that of course is a lie, but that’s not the point. The point is this is a room full of presumably very smart people that believe a talking point, or a variation of a talking point (that’s underscored, like so much of the right’s talking points, with a tinge of code).

    2.) That “press conference” – hastily assembled at 10:20 eastern time, no less – was a whopping THREE QUESTIONS. Romney was obviously rattled, stumbling for some sort of spin on it, almost going full-Palin with a rambling word salad. And then, not liking the situation at all, just walked off. With that last question about his “core beliefs” hanging there out loud. That right there showed cowardice!

    Finally, none of these are “gaffes” – and the last thing Romney can do is “walk-back” any of these things as the already testy and distrustful tea party and tinfoil hat crowd will see that for weakness.

    He built this mess, alright.

  9. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/18/2012 - 11:40 am.

    The locusts have over-run the wheat field


    Do Governor Romney’s remarks at a recent fundraiser regarding 47% of Americans being dependent on government make you more or less likely to support his candidacy?

    More likely (16587) 48%
    Less likely (9680) 28%
    Will have no impact (8163) 24%


    • Submitted by Sean Huntley on 09/18/2012 - 12:46 pm.

      You do know that isn’t actually a poll that means anything, don’t you? Heh indeed. Romney’s team is DESPERATELY trying to find a way to get the shovel put away, they just keep digging and digging and digging.

    • Submitted by Jim Camery on 09/18/2012 - 12:47 pm.

      makes sense

      From a group focused on high finance. Irrelevant to the real world, though.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 09/18/2012 - 01:00 pm.

      The Yahoo Finance internet poll???

      I don’t even have to comment….I’ll just let it deliciously fester on it’s own.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 09/18/2012 - 02:07 pm.

      Oh I wonder

      Who was on the finance section of Maybe a bunch of corporate people dependent on the govt.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/18/2012 - 05:02 pm.

      Right now

      There’s no poll on that Web site (you seem to have a problem with direct links), just the news that the price of oil is falling.

    • Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/18/2012 - 10:34 pm.

      You must have missed the fine print that read: “for entertainment purposes only”

      Seriously, I look at the ticker on Yahoo’s finance page and I see that my 401K is up over 110% since Obama took office.

      If I want to entertain myself, I can fill out polls in the Strib Sport’s section.

  10. Submitted by jerry wimmers on 09/18/2012 - 11:44 am.

    Romney – Article – what wrong with what he said

    There is nothing wrong with what Romney said…’s the truth and the American people need to hear the hard truths…..Obama’s is buffalloing the American people and individuals in this 47%…..Obama has done nothing to help these people out of their situation and earn a paycheck. In my opinion, Obama does not want to help these people because he and the Democrats know they will vote for him if they need gov’t assistance….But they and all American need to take responsiblility in their selves…..NO MORE HAND OUTS (put a limit on it) and you make people take pride in themselves……PEOPLE WORKING IS GOOD FOR THEM AND AMERICA…….Obama has FAILED…..(and I gave him the benefit of the doubt when elected and supported him) BUT NOT TODAY…….he has no clue as to how to get America back to greatness nor (In my opinion) care to……IT IS TIME FOR President Obama to go……no longer good for America domestically or internationally…..

    You can spin this how ever you want……But I want President Obama to tell me how to he is going to put 12 million Americans back to work……

    Finally, the 47% that Romney addressed is a sector I am tired of receiving something for nothing and both candidates need to change this….But Obama and Democrats will not because they will not vote for Democarts if they stop recieving. THE 47% NEED TO RECEIVE HELP FOR A PERIOD OF TIME BUT THAT’S IT…….OR PROVIDE THEY A JOB FOR DOING SOMETHING FOR WHAT THEY ARE RECEIVING UNTIL THEY FIND SOME TYPE OF WORK….


    • Submitted by Tim Walker on 09/18/2012 - 01:04 pm.

      Can you please tell me, Mr. Wimmers …

      … how Mr. Romney plans to generate 12 million jobs in four years?

      (In this country, by the way.)

  11. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/18/2012 - 12:05 pm.

    Romney may be right

    About the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
    That hole has been getting deeper since 1967 — no American president (or anyone else) has made any significant progress on more than a start towards looking for a solution.
    The problem remains that two groups of people have claims on the same land, and neither of them are really committed to any significant compromise.
    The best that can be done at this point is damage control; trying to prevent either side from digging the hole deeper.
    I don’t think that Romney has shown much sign of being good at damage control.

  12. Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 09/18/2012 - 12:09 pm.

    Mr. Romney’s America

    More evidence that Mr. Romney’s America is simply the roomfuls of people who can comfortably plunk down $50,000 for a meal all the while complaining about the very existance of those who cannot.

    When asked 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?” Mr. Romney could have responded with at least acknowledging that there are a lot of folks who find themselves in dire straits because they are not born into great wealth or not as fortunate as the people in that room.

    I suspect that Mr. Romney is so pre-occupied with the “problems” of people like himself with great wealth that he truly believes that a President doesn’t need to concern himself with those folks who don’t have what he has.

  13. Submitted by Karen Cole on 09/18/2012 - 12:19 pm.

    But the 47% vote against their own self-interest

    Romney said, “There are 47% who will vote for the president no matter what.” The 47% he says pay no income tax.

    But the problem is that people are not a monolith and do not vote as a block the way Romney says.

    Because people vote against their own economic self-interest based on their world view.

    I never understood this until I read some of George Lakoff’s books. He identifies two overarching world views, the “nuturing mother” world view that values community and the “strict father” world view that values personal accountability. Simple, but there’s some truth to it, I think.

    And there are a lot of reasons that people adopt one or another view. But you simply can’t divide people into camps based on their economic circumstances.

  14. Submitted by Robert Gauthier on 09/18/2012 - 12:27 pm.

    Can’t attack the facts

    Attack the messenger. The panic seems to be on your side, Mr Swift. Mr. Romney’s statements stand on their own and many Republicans are repudiating or running from them. Not the Rush Republicans , the ones who actually do this for a living. The danger now is that Romney/Ryan drags down the ticket. Romney “is what we thought he was” to quote Denny Green. Ryan cannot stop making weird assertions about his supposed physical prowess. This ticket almost makes McCain/Palin look strong.

  15. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 09/18/2012 - 12:32 pm.


    Well, I think Romney is at last being honest. The things he says in private are probably the most accurate of his views.
    Wonder why he doesn’t mention his own taxes and the low and non-existent taxes many corporations pay, which make them dependent on government. Stop the support for “entitlements” like social security, which we paid for, but keep on giving subsidies to big corporations. I doubt he notices the contradictions.

    • Submitted by carter meland on 09/18/2012 - 04:05 pm.

      Piggybacking on Ms. Martin’s point

      Ms. Martin wonders why Romney doesn’t mention the low-to-nonexistent taxes that many corportations pay and that made me think of another critical oversight that Romney makes in painting this picture. He conflates the 47% of non-taxpayers with being moochers on gov’t entitlements AND with being squarely in the Obama camp. As Brooks points out in NYTimes piece (that served as the impetus for Black’s piece here): “The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor.” Those benefiting from entitlements are not, as another commenter pointed out above, a monolithic block. Look again at Brooks’s words: “They are Republicans” (he probably should’ve added “as well” to that statement).

  16. Submitted by Don Medal on 09/18/2012 - 12:52 pm.

    wind up like North Dakota??

    N. Dakota is currently wealthy for the same reason Alaska was 20 years ago. Oil. Lots of oil. Not because of the way the state is run, nor the wisdom of the people (although they do have plenty of practical wisdom) nor the guidance of the Republican Party. It could have been run by zombies and still be rich. N.D.’s relative prosperity is mostly luck of the draw.

    So for the US to become like ND we’d have to discover enough oil to become the world’s leading exporter of oil.

    Not because of choices we make in the presidential election.

  17. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/18/2012 - 02:04 pm.

    Oh, here’s another one

    Do you agree with Romney’s statement?

    Yes 76%
    No 22%
    Not Sure 3%
    Total Votes: 13302

  18. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 09/18/2012 - 02:27 pm.

    safe bet

    It’s a safe bet that people on welfare and food stamps, people who are employed by the government, and some others sucking on the government teat will vote for Democratic candidates. People who don’t pay income taxes aren’t interested in tax cuts if they don’t pay taxes themselves. Most of these people are firmly in Obama’s camp. Romney’s statement is pretty accurate.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/18/2012 - 03:53 pm.

      Hmmm, I wonder how many Republican landlords, retailers and medical providers depend on the government bucks that are spent in their establishments by the leeches and free-loaders?

  19. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 09/18/2012 - 05:13 pm.

    No need to give Romney a shovel.

    Romney is doing a fine job of digging himself deeper into a political hole without a shovel. I know why he doesn’t bother telling people what loopholes he would cut if he becomes president. It is because he knows he shouldn’t waste the time saying what they are because he is not going to get that opportunity. Keep digging Mitt. Voters, Mitt is send you a huge message. If you want to elect a pig in a poke then Mitt’s you man. Voters, the choice is yours in November.

  20. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/18/2012 - 04:05 pm.

    And yet with all this condemnation from our friends in the press

    Romney is actually up in the polls from a week ago. And if Gallup et al would actually sample the right percentage of self-described party members and not over sample democrats by 6-10 percent, Romney is ahead in the polls.


  21. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/18/2012 - 05:16 pm.

    And when you’ve lost

    Bill Kristol and David Brooks,
    you’re really backed into the far right corner of the room.

  22. Submitted by al cleland on 09/18/2012 - 07:17 pm.

    Interesting quote

    From the September 3rd issue of Time magazine’s interview of Gov. Romney attempting to contrast his campaign from President Obama’s:
    “I’ve not tried to divide Americans between one class or another or one location or another or one occupation or another. I happen to feel that we are united as a nation, and that’s a source of strength. And the divisiveness and the personal character assassination, I think, is an unfortunate course, and I don’t think it will be a successful one.”

  23. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/18/2012 - 09:21 pm.

    This Is So Rich

    It’s fun to see conservative Tea Party types vigorously defending Moderate Mitt, flip-flopper extraordinaire.

    Hey, is he for or against abortion this week? Check the Etch-A-Scetch.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/19/2012 - 10:26 am.

      That’s a fair criticism, Frank.

      But I hope I do not come across as “vigorously defending” Mitt, I certainly do not feel vigorously enthusiastic about him. He’s merely the better choice of two unqualified candidates…I don’t believe Mitt will do much *for* the country, but I do believe he won’t do much to harm it either.

      On the other hand, Obama has done quite enough.

  24. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/18/2012 - 10:06 pm.

    I remember in the worst days of the 2008 campaign, my brother’s father-in-law asked me how I expected to vote and I told him that John McCain seems to be doing everything he can think of to make me vote for Obama but I refuse to be manipulated. Romney, however, looks set to pull it off.

  25. Submitted by Katy Butler on 09/20/2012 - 08:58 pm.

    raise the minimum wage

    To increase the number of Americans paying income taxes, make the real minimum wage a living wage, and raise it to its level in 1968.

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