Why Romney's "Rich" Gaffes Will Cost Him

By David Paul Kuhn - February 3, 2012

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It’s a mid-December debate. Rick Perry’s hammering Romney’s health care plan. And what was Romney’s rejoinder? “Rick, I’ll tell you what -- 10,000 bucks?” Romney presses, “$10,000 bet?” That's a fifth of America’s median household income.

New Hampshire in early January. Romney is on stage. He’s telling people that he has lived outside the Washington bubble. You see, he may have grown up wealthy, become a millionaire about 200 times over, but he too has “wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip” in the past.

Speaking of bubbles. Romney is at a press conference in mid-January. Reporter tosses the foreseeable question. What’s your income tax rate? Romney waffles. Then he says about 15 percent. Oh, he almost forgot, he earned money from speeches. But it’s “not very much,” he says. The amount is $374,000.

Sometimes context fully explains the comment. "I like being able to fire people," Romney said in January. But hold on. What did he entirely say? That he likes firing people who provide bad work. It was a solid free-market point. But, again, Romney chose poor words to make his point.

Then came Wednesday morning. He’s fresh off his Florida landslide. And Romney steps on his momentum. He tells CNN that he’s “not concerned about the very poor.” They have safety nets, he explained. Later, on his flight between Florida and Minnesota, Romney tried to contextualize. He is asked about the quote. "No no no no no no no no," Romney reportedly says. "You’ve got to take the whole sentence.”

But, as I wrote last cycle, context is difficult after the gaffe. Obama’s great gaffe in 2008 was the polar opposite of Romney’s. Yet both have the feel of Michael Kinsley’s rule: “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.” Or the truth, as he sees it.

Obama’s characterization of small-town America as “bitter” substantiated the worst image of Democrats. It became the linchpin for the cultural populism, circa 2008, that was threaded through Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech. Most analysts ignore it. But, despite every advantage, Obama was behind in national polling and retreating from reddish swing states at the time. Then the market crashed. It airbrushed Obama’s mistakes and bore his majority. Romney cannot rely on the rare event that suspends the laws of political physics.

Romney also has a pedestal problem. His first television ad of this campaign quoted Obama saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose." Obama was actually paraphrasing a McCain aide back in 2008. But Romney’s team used the quote. It fit their strategic frame.

Romney can’t cry foul. And he will want to if he wins the nomination. The Democratic ads will pound him. But as Romney recently said of Gingrich’s complaints, politics “ain’t bean bag.” Oh, how the past informs the present.

The GOP Context

In 1952 and 1960, Gallup asked Americans which party best “serves the interests” of five sectors: business and professional people, white-collar workers, farmers, skilled workers and unskilled workers. In both years, Americans thought Republicans best represented the interests of only one sector: business and professional people.

The FDR coalition is long gone. Democrats have lost significant clout with the middle and working class in recent decades. But Republicans still retain their economically elitist image.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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