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The gaffe, the reaction and how the game has suddenly changed for Romney

U.S. Republican presidential nominee and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks to reporters in Los Angeles, Calif., on Monday.


You know you are in trouble when Donald Trump is doing damage control for you.

Most other Republicans ran for the hills as the fallout from Mitt Romney's callous dismissal of the 47 per cent of Americans he considers "dependent on government" threatened to sink a presidential campaign that had already been taking on a Niagara Falls' worth of water.

The GOP nominee's top aides scrambled on Tuesday to calm campaign donors exasperated at the serial blunders by Mr. Romney that have made it more and more unlikely they will ever see a return on their investment.

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As a seasoned investor, Mr. Romney knows that it is never a wise idea to throw good money after bad. More and more of his donors may now agree and put their money into Senate and House of Representatives races where the prospects of victory seem brighter.

"There are a lot of people who are getting nervous about the fact that this campaign doesn't seem to be going anywhere," one Romney fundraiser told online publication Politico on Tuesday. "[Donors] operate with a herd mentality. I think the campaign recognizes that and is working to try and mollify, if not completely, push it back."

By writing off almost half of the country he seeks to lead – as Mr. Romney did in remarks at a $50,000-a-ticket May fundraiser that was secretly videotaped – the Republican nominee has focused attention on a myth commonly propagated by the American right: That the country is equally divided between taxpayers and freeloaders.

That dichotomy has been a staple of GOP wedge politics. In 1976, then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan disparaged "welfare queens" who bilked the system. Last year, running for the nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry decried the "entitlement culture" that had too many Americans sitting in the wagon instead of pulling it.

This kind of talk squares with the image of self-reliant strivers that many Americans hold of themselves. The truth is that a social safety net and progressive taxes are as much a part of the American fabric as the Fourth of July. And many of those sitting in the wagon are Republicans.

The Pew Research Center, which conducts annual surveys on American values, found this year that 59 per cent of Americans agree that "it is the government's responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves." That is down from 69 per cent in 2007; only 40 per cent of Republican voters now agree that the state should care for the indigent.

But the decline belies the fact that many Americans depend on the social safety net without even realizing it, an ignorance encapsulated by the Tea Party slogan: "Keep your government hands off my Medicare."

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As a former Massachusetts governor responsible for creating that state's signature social program – state-subsidized health insurance – Mr. Romney has stood above such demonization of the poor and sick as leeches. Though the gaffe-prone candidate did cap his win in the Florida primary by telling an interviewer he was "not concerned about the very poor," he meant it in the nicest way possible. Even his critics forgave him for that.

This time is different.

In the video posted Monday by Mother Jones magazine, Mr. Romney told donors that "47 per cent" of the electorate will vote for President Barack Obama "no matter what. … [They are] dependent upon government, believe that they are victims, believe the government has a responsibility to care for them. … These are people who pay no income tax."

In a kicker no presidential candidate is ever to repeat, Mr. Romney added: "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

In a press scrum on Monday night, Mr. Romney looked shaken. But he did not apologize for what he conceded were his "not elegantly stated" remarks. He simply explained that his promise of lower income taxes is not going to win over voters who pay none: "It's a message I'm going to continue to carry."

Technically, Mr. Romney was right. According to the Washington-based Tax Policy Center, about 47 per cent of Americans do not pay any income taxes, either because they do not earn enough or benefit from deductions that wipe out their tax bill. But every American with a job faces payroll taxes that help pay for Medicare and Social Security. Indeed, when sales taxes and sin taxes are factored in, many working-poor pay a higher proportion of their income to the government than many rich Americans.

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At any rate, by Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Romney had dropped the 47 per cent line, telling Fox Business News: "I'm going get as many [votes] as I can from every single cohort in this country."

The Romney video was another gift to Mr. Obama, who has had a remarkable string of luck as the Republican nominee keeps accidentally taking the spotlight off the President's record and shining it on Mr. Romney's own inept campaign.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney could barely hide his delight, telling reporters: "When you're President of the United States, you are President of all the people, not just the people who voted for you." You've heard [Mr. Obama] say so many times – because he deeply believes it – we're in this together, all of us."

Jonathan Chait, a liberal columnist and blogger at New York Magazine was blunter: "The video exposes an authentic Romney as a far more sinister character than I had imagined. Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party."

Ironically, Mr. Romney insulted millions of Americans who actually do (or at least did) intend to vote for him, including seniors on Medicare, one of the Republican Party's most loyal constituencies. White, working-class voters who eliminate their income tax bill through a series of legitimate deductions (that encourage work) and tax credits (that help families) might also feel offended by Mr. Romney's comments.

Mr. Obama also made inopportune remarks to donors, in 2008, while explaining his failure to connect with economically "frustrated" working-class voters who "cling to guns or religion."

But where Mr. Obama sounded condescending, Mr. Romney sounded contemptuous. And while Mr. Obama's comments drove the news cycle for a few days in April, when the election was still seven months off, Mr. Romney has only seven weeks left to repair the damage his remarks have caused his incredible shrinking candidacy.

No wonder so many Republicans, the Donald excepted, are in hiding.

"He cannot apologize," Mr. Trump told NBC's Today on Tuesday. "He won't get the votes of a lot of the people he's discussing. And if you're not going to get the votes, let's go on with it."

In other words, if you're going to lose, you might as well lose big.


Other notable Republican gaffes

George Bush senior 1989 - 1993

  • President George H. W. Bush sought re-election during an economic recession and committed several gaffes that made him look out-of-touch. During a debate, the President admitted that he did not know the price of a gallon of milk. On another occasion, he expressed amazement at a supermarket price scanner.

George Bush Jr. 2001 - 2009

  • Eight years later, his son, George W. Bush, sought to avoid the mistakes of his father by cultivating a cowboy boots and denim shirts image who was home on his ranch. The public would occasionally flinch and embrace such folksy errors as this 2002 quote: “There's an old saying in Tennessee ... I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says, Fool me once, shame on ... shame on you. Fool me ... You can't get fooled again.”

Ronald Reagan 1981 - 1989

  • Arguably the most popular Republican president in recent history, Mr, Reagan took gaffes to a whole new level, such as this 1984 comment, picked up on an open mike during a national radio broadcast: “My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you I just signed legislation which outlaws Russia forever. The bombing begins in five minutes.”
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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More


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