In a recent interview with Mark Leibovich, Mitt Romney offered up a new excuse for foolishly venting to a supporter during the 2012 campaign about the perfidy of the “47 percent” (i.e., the folks who take no personal responsibility for their lives and just want lots of free bennies from the government). Here it is:
Romney told me that the statement came out wrong, because it was an attempt to placate a rambling supporter who was saying that Obama voters were essentially deadbeats. “My mistake was that I was speaking in a way that reflected back to the man,” Romney said. “If I had been able to see the camera, I would have remembered that I was talking to the whole world, not just the man.” I had never heard Romney say that he was prompted into the “47 percent” line by a ranting supporter. It was also impossible to ignore the phrase “If I had to do this again.”
That supporter was not rambling. Here’s what he asked: “For the last three years, all everybody’s been told is, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’ How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself?” That was a straightforward query, succinctly put, not rambling at all. It was Romney who took the point to the next level and proclaimed that a specific number of Americans were lazy freeloaders who could not and would not fend for themselves.
But I don’t think this is fair. “Rambling” and “ranting” are Leibovich’s words, not Romney’s. All Romney says is that he was “speaking in a way that reflected back to the man.” And that’s true. In fact, this was pretty much my guess about what really happened that night, and I suggested at the time that it revealed a lot about Romney’s execrable people skills. After all, every candidate has to interact with true believers, many of whom are also rich donors.
A politician with even a tenuous grasp on how to handle this kind of pressure knows what to do: you redirect. You can’t tell these folks they’re crazy, of course….But you can’t really agree with them either….So you soothe. I get where you’re coming from. And then you back away. Maybe you blame it on polling data….Maybe you change the subject….Maybe you appeal to authority.
….But you handle them. Except that apparently Romney can’t. And that’s pretty weird, isn’t it? He has more experience handling the titanic egos of rich people than anyone in politics. If anyone should be able to stroke big-dollar donors without saying anything stupid, it ought to be Mitt Romney.
This is basically what Romney is fessing up to. He wanted to pander to this questioner, but he didn’t have the skills to do that off-the-cuff in a safe way. So, since he thought he was speaking privately, he just went ahead and gave him the full pander instead.
Whether Romney really believed what he was saying is sort of irrelevant. I figure he probably did—sort of—though I suspect that if he’d been in a different mood he would have said something a little different. But what we really learned from this episode is that Romney had neither the guts to stand up to a rich donor nor the people skills to soothe and redirect in a safe way. In other words, he’s not really the kind of guy you want to be president of the United States.