As if to prove the point that this nomination race is far from over, Mitt Romney took to the airwaves Wednesday morning and promptly stepped on his lip.
The occasion was a post-Florida victory lap interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien. Romney was trying to relay a general-election message about how his campaign would be focused on the economic frustrations of the middle class. It didn’t quite come out that way.
Here’s what he said:
“I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich; they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”
When O’Brien gave him a chance to clarify, Romney got testy and dug himself in a bit deeper: “We will hear from the Democrat party [about] the plight of the poor … And there’s no question it’s not good being poor, and we have a safety net to help those that are very poor … My focus is on middle-income Americans.”
This set off a predictable firestorm within minutes. It resonated because it seemed to perfectly capture the unfair caricature of Romney as a distant, out-of-touch plutocrat—not just Mr. 1 percent, but Mr. 0.1 percent. And whenever a quote riffs off established narratives, it quickly takes on a life of its own.
But what’s more deeply interesting might be the intended message he mangled. It offered a glimpse into Romney’s presumably poll-tested general-election strategy—he has essentially accepted President Obama’s terms of debate. This election will be about which candidate can better protect the great American middle class.
Polls show that President Obama is starting out with an edge in that debate. A Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found that 55 percent of Americans think that President Obama “understands the problems of average Americans.” Only 39 percent feel that way about Mitt Romney.
The revelations about 500-page tax forms, 15 percent rates, Swiss bank accounts, and making more than the average American family of four in a single day don’t help.
To that end, it’s fascinating to see Romney try to appropriate the framing of the Occupy Movement to his own ends, as a fighter for “the 90 percent, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” Somewhere an irony detector was going off, stopping him from actually invoking the 99 percent, just 4 percentage points away.
It needs to be said that Romney is enormously generous to charity. But the real tell is the way that he distanced the very poor—and the very rich—from “the very heart of America” in his statement, buying into the idea that the poor have a boatload of benefits that set them apart from average Americans and make them as comparatively shielded from hardship as the super-rich. Moreover, he seemed to suggest that the very poor had the Democratic Party to look after them, and he won’t be trying to compete for those votes.
There is no question that the middle class has been getting squeezed for decades, and that a sense of frustration fuels politics in ways such as the continued resonance of riffs against welfare 15 years after the federal program was fundamentally reformed. Romney was trying to indulge in that kind of framing–he just did it very, very badly.
There’s one other tell that’s worth talking about in this close read—and this one is personal. Watch the video and you’ll see the candidate’s trademark testiness when he is challenged by a question, combined with a look of slow-motion panic when he realizes he’s mangled his words in a way that invites misunderstanding.
Never forget the scarring impact a father’s stumbles can have on a son. Mitt’s father, George Romney, was an enormously admirable man and governor of Michigan, one of the last leaders of the progressive wing of the Republican Party. But when he ran for president in 1968, he was famously loose-lipped, slipping into malapropisms that required constant clarification. His campaign was ultimately—infamously and unfairly—sunk when he said he’d been “brain-washed” by the military on a trip to Vietnam. It seems that the son has over-learned the lessons of his father’s failures.
Mitt Romney is the opposite of loose-lipped. He is highly disciplined and scripted to the point of seeming robotic. His avoidance of press conferences in this campaign is an attempt to avoid misstatements just like this, which he fears will come back to haunt him.
“I’m not concerned about the very poor” will enter the political lexicon as an instant classic, alongside $10,000 bets and corporations being people. They all riff off the same core stereotypes, which will make it harder for Mitt Romney to connect with the middle class. That’s why this morning’s misstatement will leave a lasting mark.