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Romney’s troubles

Mitt Romney’s statement to donors¸ in which he complains that almost half the country is “dependent on government” and thus won't vote for him, was badly argued and just plain dumb. It has damaged him politically. But the situation as not as dire for him, nor as positive for President Obama, as many are arguing.

Romney was caught making his remarks on a video that was secretly recorded at an event in May. The liberal magazine Mother Jones posted it online on Monday.

In many respects, the “gotcha” video is not that shocking. It has been clear for at least a year that Romney is an exceptionally wooden and awkward candidate. He struggled his way through the Republican primaries, stumbling from gaffe to gaffe. That he ended up as the Republicans’ candidate speaks volumes about the historically poor state of that party (as I argued here).  This is unlikely to be the last dumb thing he says during the election campaign.

The Romney video is similar in many ways to Obama’s talk during the 2008 election trail in which he referred to working class voters as “bitter”, and said they “cling to guns or religion” out of frustration.  Both were secretly recorded at private fund-raising events.  The words seem to have a heightened impact because they seem to show the “real” candidate, speaking what he really believes but cannot say to a wider public. In both cases, the candidates suffer from appearing to be inauthentic. Inauthenticity is a big problem in our recent elections because candidates run much more on character than on policy. Authenticity plays a larger role than it should.

What’s striking about both Romney's and Obama's secretly-recored remarks is that both denigrate the working class. Of course, their prejudices take different forms.  Romney bemoans freeloaders sucking at the government teat, who he’ll “never convince” to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives”. Obama in 2008 revealed that he views the lower orders as backward, that they have “antipathy for those aren’t like them” (that is, racist). Romney and Obama are two wings of the single political elite that is disdainful and distrustful of the masses that they watch from afar. Publicly they make patronizing comments about how much they want to help the poor and working classes; in private they hurl insults at them. Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart describes the emergence of a new elite that is aloof and estranged from the masses, and I suppose it is therefore only fitting (and unfortunate) that the candidates of the two major parties reflect the times we live in.

As I mentioned, this video will harm Romney politically. Not because it shows him as a rich guy, as Thurston Howell III (from the sixties sit-com Gilligan’s Island) – that is something everybody has known for ages.  No, it’s bad because, for one thing, it shows him as incoherent: Romney conflates the 47 percent of people who do not pay federal income taxes, with a similar percentage who receive government checks, and with a similar percentage who pollsters show have made up their minds to vote for Obama. The people in those three groups are not all the same. There are plenty of Republican voters who do not pay taxes or receive government money in some form. Such intellectual incoherence is demoralizing for his supporters, especially the Republican pundits (one, William Kristol, called Romney’s statements “stupid and arrogant”).

The video is also bad because it reveals Romney as cynical and dismissive.  The 47 percent will vote for Obama “no matter what”. “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them,” he says. At their recent national convention, Republicans claimed to be the party of economic opportunity, the party that will lift people out of poverty, off welfare, and into a good job. But Mitt has written off “those people”, who according to his math represent nearly half the country. As David Frum, a former aide to George W. Bush, said on CNN, “If you don’t run to be president of all the country you won't be president of any of it.”

Gleeful liberals have been chanting “The election is over”. In fact, they said it last week (after Romney’s comments about the Cairo embassy), and the week before that (after the Democrats’ convention). This is all wishful thinking on their part, and evinces a desire to not engage in political argument. Just when the external world raises the question of real politics – as it did last week when the Middle East erupted in protests over a movie trailer - Obamaites clearly want to turn the discussion towards Romney’s gaffes.

Polls have indeed shown Obama opening up a slight lead over the past week or so – but it’s still only three percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of recent polls. Obama supporters can’t see that they have a weak candidate as well. There’s a good chance the focus will turn back on him, and the question will be “why can’t Obama knock out Romney?” The real world has a nasty habit of intruding, and a weak US economy, the Euro-crisis, the Israel-Iran confrontation and the Middle East in flames (to name just a few) all reflect badly on Obama.

The 2012 presidential election contest been particularly brain-dead, consisting of accusations of lies, caricatures about rich and poor, “gotcha” videos, and so on. The US is at a critical juncture, but there’s no debate about it, and neither presidential candidate feels the slightest compunction to put forward a solution. It’s not Mitt Romney who’s lost the past week. No, it’s the voters who have lost.

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