It was one of the great newspaper takedowns in presidential politics.
In unloading on the lower 47 percent of American taxpayers at a fundraiser, Mitt Romney was indulging a “country-club fantasy,” revealing “what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other” and “running a depressingly inept presidential campaign.”
The added sting came from the author’s identity. As a moderately conservative columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks favors smaller government. But hours after his piece appeared, he seemed even more revolted by the Republican nominee’s words.
“If you spend any time at a community college,” Brooks tells me, “people have probably been on welfare at some point, on food stamps at one point. Do you really think they want to be dependent? It’s just morally offensive to call people like that freeloaders.”
How big a blunder were the Romney remarks, which surfaced in a videotape on Monday? “It’s always a mistake to be hating on America,” Brooks says, and leaving “half of American culture discarded.”
Brooks hardly speaks for all conservatives; indeed, many regard him as a squish who has dared to write nice things about President Obama.
The furor over Romney and those he called government-addicted “victims” reveals a deep split on the right, where some prominent voices say the candidate has stumbled onto a winning issue. And Romney himself has broadened his indictment, telling Fox’s Neil Cavuto on Tuesday that “we believe in free people and free enterprise, not redistribution.” Moments later, he hit Obama for cutting $716 billion from Medicare, which redistributes money to the elderly—as does the progressive income tax. But the key point is that Romney isn’t backing away from his secretly videotaped critique.
Romney’s evisceration of the 47 percent drew applause from such unabashed conservatives as Erick Erickson.
“For once,” he wrote on Red State, “we see Mitt Romney undercover and off the record and he sounds like a real person not pulled by the gravitational forces of the DC GOP Elite who have capitulated to $16 trillion in national debt. And suddenly, those Beltway Republicans are beating up Romney for saying something off the cuff, maybe not as polished as he should have, but that is agreed with by a majority of Americans.”
In an interview, Erickson says he was shocked that Romney “doubled down” on his comments and that the media are blowing the controversy out of proportion.
“I don’t think it’s a gaffe, but it could be a problem,” Erickson says. “Now he’s being crucified for remarks even he admits are inarticulate…For this to come out publicly, surreptitiously, illegally, whatever, he’s going to need to own the remarks.”
The CNN commentator points to the latest Gallup poll, in which 54 percent of those surveyed say government is doing too much. (There was no mention of an entitlement culture.) “I’m not exactly a Romney sympathizer, but a lot of people talk about this at the dinner table,” he tells me.
Many journalists view the fundraiser remarks as confirmation that the onetime venture capitalist can’t relate to ordinary folks. But some in the Romney camp believe it’s members of the media who are out of touch, that most national reporters never spend time with those in the dependency class and have all but abandoned talking to voters.
In short, they believe Romney’s message, however inartfully delivered, is right.
Needless to say, many conservative commentators believe he badly botched the argument.
“Obviously it hurts,” National Review editor Rich Lowry tells me. “But it’s probably not as catastrophic as people are portraying it as. The Romney campaign has been declared over three or four different times, and he’s almost tied in Gallup.” (Obama leads Romney 50 to 45 percent among likely voters in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll out Tuesday.)
On his website, Lowry writes that Romney “shouldn’t back off at all on the point that too many people are dependent on government…But he should make it clear that he doesn’t think they are half the country…The overall impression of Romney at this event is of someone who overheard some conservative cocktail chatter and maybe read a conservative blog or two, and is thoughtlessly repeating back what he heard and read.”
That was restrained compared to David Frum’s verdict in The Daily Beast:
“Mitt Romney has just committed the worst presidential-candidate gaffe since Gerald Ford announced in 1976 that ‘there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.’”
Peggy Noonan was no less biting in her Wall Street Journal column: “This is not how big leaders talk, it’s how shallow campaign operatives talk…It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one.” What’s more, she insists, “it’s time for an intervention.”
And Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol pulled no punches in pronouncing Romney’s remarks “stupid” and “arrogant.”
Why aren’t the conservative cognoscenti circling the wagons in an effort to oust Obama? Keep in mind that Kristol, Lowry, Erickson, and many others on the right ripped Romney during the primaries and have never fully trusted him. But the divisions run deeper than that, as Lowry described them to me:
“There’s often a split between conservatives and David Brooks; a split on how strong the reflex should be to defend Romney no matter what he’s saying, when he’s getting attacked by Democrats and the media; and a split on the merits of the question.”
No wonder Romney can’t count on a conservative chorus, especially when he keeps saying things that deepen their doubts.