Mitt Romney is leading the league in gaffes. We know this because the media are counting. The Week lists his “9 worst clueless-rich-man gaffes.” The Wall Street Journal trumps that with “Romney’s Top 10 Wealth Gaffes.” The Christian Science Monitor refers to the “Mitt Romney gaffe monster.”
This is bad for Romney. Next to being called racist or a homophobe, the worst thing that can be said about a candidate is he’s gaffe-prone. It suggests his brain-to-mouth hookup is faulty when he talks off-the-cuff, and he lacks a grip on political reality. Thus the candidate’s image and campaign suffer.
But it’s not Romney, it’s reporters and commentators who are out of touch with reality. They insist on applying a Depression-era mindset to anything Romney says that in any way whatsoever might make people suspect he’s rich. And if that happens, folks are bound to dislike him.
There are three things wrong with this. One, people by and large don’t hate the rich. They don’t think the well-to-do are evil, as they might have in the 1930s. Two, by definition, a gaffe is a social blunder or faux pas. Romney’s supposed gaffes don’t qualify. Three, everybody already knows Romney is rich. Next to the fact he’s a Mormon, it’s the personal detail for which he’s most famous.
Let’s look at a recent “gaffe.” In a speech to the Detroit Economic Club on February 24, Romney departed from his text and noted his wife Ann “drives a couple of Cadillacs.” Wow! Those are expensive cars. The Romneys must be rich.
For heaven’s sake, what did the media think she would drive? A Jeep? A subcompact? Perhaps it was worse that she has two of them. But this is the 21st century. Middle-class families often have two or three cars, though maybe not Cadillacs.
Mike Murphy, once a Romney strategist, sneered at the alleged gaffe. He noted, in a tweet after last week’s Michigan primary, that Romney won the district where Cadillacs are manufactured by 8 percentage points. “He should drop by the plant and buy another one today,” Murphy said.
Two days after the Cadillacs comment, Romney did it again. “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners,” he said. Now it might be better, for the purpose of appearing to be a regular guy, if his NASCAR buddies were drivers or oil-stained members of a pit crew. But did his statement suddenly alert anyone that Romney hangs around with wealthy people like himself? I seriously doubt it. Or did it remind people of his exalted financial status and make them less likely to vote for him? I doubt the media have any evidence it contributed to a falloff in support for Romney.
Another “gaffe” occurred during a debate in Des Moines on December 10. Rick Perry persisted in claiming Romney favors a health insurance mandate. “Rick, I’ll tell you what,” Romney responded. “Ten thousand bucks? Ten-thousand-dollar bet?”
For sure, this was an unusual comment for a candidate to make in a televised debate. Was Romney acting like a rich guy? Or simply like a guy? Hard to tell. But not every untoward moment like this one is a gaffe.
Nor is a statement the media construe to say what Romney wasn’t really saying. In a CNN interview on February 1, he said: “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.” He added that if programs for the poor are insufficient—he cited several—he’d fix the problem. Nonetheless, he was criticized for not caring about the poor or at least being tone deaf to their plight. This was number three on The Week’s gaffe list.
One more example of media mischief. On January 9, while discussing health insurance, Romney said he likes “being able to fire people who provide services to me.” He wasn’t talking about the joy of firing employees, but of choosing among service providers. That was clear. Yet it’s number five on The Week’s list. Why? Because when saying it, he looked like a bad boss.
Romney is guilty of another sort of gaffe: accidentally telling the truth at his own expense. This type was first identified by Michael Kinsley, the journalist and former editor of the New Republic. “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth,” he wrote.
On January 24, Romney released his tax returns. Most of his income came from investments, but he earned $374,000 in 2011 from speaker’s fees. He said those earnings amounted to “not very much.” Most Americans probably wouldn’t agree with his assessment. So it was indeed a gaffe, or maybe a mini-gaffe.
Oddly enough, his rival Rick Santorum is guilty of more Kinsley gaffes than Romney is. Santorum said John F. Kennedy’s hallowed 1960 speech on church and state makes him want to vomit. True, that’s what he believes. But it hardly did his presidential campaign any good.
Candid to a fault, Santorum attacked President Obama for wanting “everybody in America to go to college.” He called Obama a “snob.” Again, it was an accurate reflection of Santorum’s thinking, not a poll-tested, insincere remark to win votes. It clashes, however, with the widespread aspiration of Americans to get a college education and doubtless did more harm than good to his candidacy.
A good question is why the media have identified so many gaffes. Brit Hume of Fox News says political reporters, when confronted with a peculiar, off-the-wall comment by a politician, don’t know how to label it except as a gaffe. Besides, Hume says, much of the media are living in “a parallel universe in which wealth is a vice and poverty a virtue.”
Though Romney’s millions put him at a disadvantage, there’s a way out. “He needs to embrace his personal history and then joke about it,” says political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. JFK was adept at this. When his father’s role in financing his campaign became an issue, he quoted his father as saying he’d be willing to buy the election, “but I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.” Too bad Romney isn’t as witty as he is wealthy.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.