It’s not easy to pick out watershed marks in a presidential race in advance of the voting, but Mitt Romney’s depiction of nearly half of Americans as embracing victimhood and government dependency can’t be a great moment for a rich Republican who has been desperately trying to prove he understands the common man.
Romney’s comments, reported Monday by Mother Jones magazine, hit a Romney campaign already stumbling after a tepid party convention (which produced almost no “bounce”) and recovering from a media report about growing disillusionment with the campaign’s top strategist, Stuart Stevens.
The new video, which the magazine said was recorded after Romney secured the Republican nomination, shows Romney seemingly writing off half the electorate in his speech to “a small group of wealthy contributors.”
Then-candidate Barack Obama managed to transcend his own massive stumble at a 2008 fundraiser — when an audio recording caught him saying that “bitter” small-town voters “cling to guns or religion” because of their dismay over their economic straits. The Democrat would later call that statement, made at a swanky San Francisco gathering, the biggest misstep of his campaign.
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But Romney’s comment targeted such a broad segment of the population — essentially anyone callow enough to support President Obama — and is sure to dog him in the coming days, if not for the remaining seven weeks before election day. Such candid remarks, from purportedly off-the-record events, can be particularly devastating because they suggest the candidates are delivering their unvarnished opinions, rather than canned talking points.
This is what Romney said at the event earlier this year, according to one of several short videos posted on the Mother Jones website:
“There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, 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 healthcare, 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.”
Romney went on to say that the people he was talking about — supporters of President Obama — “are people who pay no income tax.” Of these layabouts, Romney added: “[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
The Romney campaign and Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, in a CNN interview, did nothing to walk away from that statement Monday afternoon. They only angled the criticism so that it targeted what Priebus called the “monstrosity” of government, more than the huge number of Americans who receive at least some services from the U.S.
“As the governor has made clear all year, he is concerned about the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government, including the record number of people who are on food stamps, nearly 1 in 6 Americans in poverty, and the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work,” said Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho in a statement. “Mitt Romney's plan creates 12 million new jobs in four years, grows the economy and moves Americans off of government dependency and into jobs.”
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Romney’s problem in the days to come will be that it revealed a public figure who is not just disdainful of the size of the American bureaucracy, but of the millions of people who stoop to relying on, say, unemployment benefits. That brings in quite a few more of our fellow citizens who merely fell on hard times, hardly lifetime chiselers.
“[M]y job is not to worry about those people,” candidate Romney cheerily told the high-rollers at his fundraiser. “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
My job is not to worry about those people? You can almost feel the opposition ads coming on. You can almost hear the questions from the press. And you can almost hear average Americans wonder how a President Romney would unite the nation, after suggesting that he’s written off a good portion of the country as government-dependent wastrels.
There still may be time to escape the cage he created for himself with Victimgate, but it’s going to take some mighty explaining and identifying with average Americans. That’s a task that Mitt Romney has struggled at, ever since he started running for president eight years ago.
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