The gravity of the public release of a video showing Mitt Romney disparaging the poorer half of the country at a private meeting of wealthy donors was evident in his campaign’s initial response to it.
His top spokeswoman issued a statement without saying what it was about, lest it confirm the authenticity of the controversial comments, or self-perpetuate them.
“Mitt Romney wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy,” Communications Director Gail Gitcho said in the statement, released at 6:31 p.m. Monday - just as the network newscasts were about to air her boss’s comments.
Yet the spokeswoman’s expansion, about how Romney “has made clear all year” that “he is concerned about the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government,” collided with the rhetoric he used in the video and is quoted in the Mother Jones story that accompanied it.
Simply put, the Republican presidential nominee wrote off almost half the people he wants to lead as president of the United States.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney said, referring to President Obama. “There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.”
Romney classified this 47 percent as those Americans who pay no federal income tax, though fact-checkers quickly noted that in roughly half of those cases, the people are senior citizens on fixed incomes, and the remainder in the group include students and members of the US military.
“My job is is not to worry about those people,” Romney is quoted as saying. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
During a late-night news conference on Monday, Romney himself addressed the controversy, saying his comments were not as “elegantly” crafted as he might have hoped.
He added: “Of course I want to help all Americans - all Americans - have a bright and prosperous future.”
During the fund-raiser, which Mother Jones reporter David Corn said occurred on May 17 at the Boca Raton, Fla., home of an investment company executive, the former Massachusetts governor went on to talk about a dirty little secret of modern campaigning.
“We speak with voters across the country about their perceptions,” Romney said, confirming that his campaign - like Obama’s - relies on focus-group research.
Referring to undecided voters, he added: “When you say to them, ‘Do you think Barack Obama is a failure?’ they overwhelmingly say no. They like him. But when you say, ‘Are you disappointed that his policies haven’t worked?’ they say yes. And because they voted for him, they don’t want to be told that they were wrong, that he’s a bad guy, that he did bad things, that he’s corrupt. Those people that we have to get, they want to believe they did the right thing, but he just wasn’t up to the task. They love the phrase that he’s ‘over his head.’”
That explains the calculus behind a common line Romney uses on the campaign trail.
But the viral viewing and reaction to the video - as well as the titleless statement issued by his campaign in response to its release - suggest that the comments were excessive, and betrayed a belief that collided with the airy prose of his nomination acceptance speech less than three weeks ago.
“Many Americans have given up on this president but they haven’t ever thought about giving up. Not on themselves. Not on each other. And not on America,” Romney told the crowd and television audience watching the Republican National Convention.
He added in the crescendo of his speech, the opening salvo of his closing argument to would-be supporters, “Does the America we want succumb to resentment and division? We know the answer. The America we all know has been a story of the many becoming one, uniting to preserve liberty, uniting to build the greatest economy in the world, uniting to save the world from unspeakable darkness.”
Now, with the dissemination of the video and the transcript of Romney’s comments, his campaign faces a weighty moment of damage control.
It makes its maneuvering earlier in the same day, following a Politico story about staff in-fighting, seem trite.
By Romney’s own description, he and Obama are battling for a small group of undecided voters. They are not the 47 percent he says already support him, or the 47 percent non-taxpayers who, he says, support Obama.
They are the small middle still taking the measure of each candidate.
By definition, they have not yet been won over by Romney’s promises, including creating 12 million new jobs, or dissuaded by Obama’s criticisms, including the suggestion that his rival cares only about the top 1 percent.
While some of those undecideds may ultimately be inclined to agree with the Romney comments transmitted from the private to public arenas by Mother Jones, others ultimately may not.
The balance of the two would tip the outcome of the election.Glen Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.