After a week of near-perfect campaign execution that culminated in a blowout victory over his top rival, Mitt Romney awoke in Florida ready to tighten his grip on the Republican presidential nomination and turn his attention and rhetoric toward the general election. Instead, Romney committed what in tennis is known as an unforced error, setting off on a mission of declaring solidarity with the middle class but ending up in a thicket of class politics that did everything but describe America's poor as coddled.
During a CNN interview on Wednesday morning, Romney waved off the needs of both the poor and the rich. He did so in an answer to how he would "fix" a problem that shows up repeatedly in polling data -- that large swaths doubt he can relate to the needs or problems of average Americans.
"I'm not concerned about the very poor," Romney said. "We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it." Romney also said America's wealthy need no help from Washington and that he would remain relentlessly focused on the ailing middle class. Even so, his remarks about the poor struck CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien as so startling, she asked Romney to clarify, so he repeated them almost verbatim.
It was not the first time Romney has made remarks like this about the poor. The difference is this time he was fresh off a huge primary victory and looking for all the world like the putative GOP nominee. It seemed exactly the wrong time repeat a formulation as awkward, and ripe for picking by political foes, as his assertion last summer that “corporations are people.”
At a town hall on Oct. 20 at Morningside College in Sioux City, Romney said the poor were not his concern. His direct quote (about 20 minutes in) was prompted by a question on tax reform. Romney said tax cuts should focus squarely on the middle class: "The people who need the help the most are not the poor, who have a safety net; not the rich, who are doing just fine; but the middle class."
Then and now it sounds as if Romney is disconnected from the hardships of millions of Americans suffering prolonged joblessness and limited economic options other than federal assistance worth a fraction of their former earnings. In a Pew Research Center survey this week, 55 percent of respondents said President Obama "understood the problems of average Americans" very well or fairly well, while only 39 percent said Romney did. The gap was about the same among independent voters. Even 30 percent of GOP voters said Romney didn’t understand such problems.
Romney's Democratic critics see his "poor" comments as part of a pattern -- one they intend to exploit. "Pundits say the problem with the long primary is how the Republicans will beat up on each other," said Bill Burton, head of the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA. "What we've learned over the course of this campaign is that Mitt Romney's biggest problem is Mitt Romney. Left to his own devices, he will be relentless in demonstrating just how out of touch he is."
Some Republicans said Romney spoke a simple truth, one the middle class understands. “Romney was saying that the very rich can take care of themselves and the very poor receive numerous government benefits, and that it is the working middle class that is often overtaxed and neglected in tough economic times," said veteran GOP strategist Greg Mueller. "This is true, and Romney's point was the best way to raise all boats is through limited government and a free economy, not socialism. We will win that argument."
Rob Collins, another GOP strategist, was a bit less enthusiastic. "Every candidate has their 'clings to God and guns' moment, no matter how disciplined they are," Collins said, referring to a comment then-Sen. Barack Obama made during the 2008 campaign when he said rural Americans cling to religion and firearms to cope with economic frustration. "While this dents his momentum, it's only a small dent -- if handled properly. Romney needs to stop the bleeding, pivot away from this moment, and sin no more."
Not long after Romney spoke to CNN, he ventured back to the press cabin of his campaign plane to stop the bleeding. He was immediately asked what he meant, and ended up repeating all of the points that raised eyebrows in the first place. He also protested that "you've got to take the whole sentence," not just part of it. But context is the first casualty in politics, as Romney can well attest. His campaign has defended its TV ad which seemed to show Obama saying he couldn’t win this year if he talked about the economy. Obama was actually quoting an aide to 2008 nominee John McCain talking about the McCain campaign.
Romney's comments are unlikely to doom or even appreciably slow his post-Florida momentum toward the nomination. It’s in the general election that they could hurt, particularly with the types of voters George W. Bush courted with his “compassionate conservatism” -- women, moderates, and independents.
The next GOP contest is Saturday in Nevada, a place that once believed its tourist-fueled economic expansion would shield it from a long and grinding economic downturn but now tops the nation in unemployment and foreclosures. Romney won the state’s caucuses easily in 2008 (52 percent to 12 percent each for McCain and Ron Paul). He is even better organized now and is expected to win again. But Nevada in a general election is where Romney’s comments could take a toll. The closely divided state is key to winning the White House, and a good example of why Romney can’t afford to add any more fuel to the "out-of-touch" narrative.