Jacob Heilbrunn

Romney's Gaffe Problem

Michael Kinsley famously defined defined a gaffe as something a politician inadvertently says that is true but also embarrassing. Mitt Romney's remark this week about his not being concerned about the poor may fall into that category. It reinforces the perception that he is the $200 million man—a politician who truly is out of touch with common folks. Will the comment prove fatal? Hardly. But it does suggest that Romney continues to have a penchant for making gaffes even as he struggles to seem more spontaneous.

It would have been fine if Romney had said that he wants to focus on the middle class. But why did he go on to make the distinction with what he called the "very poor"? He's supposed to be running to become president of all Americans, not just the middle class. Anyway, empathy is the paramount virtue in an Oprahized culture. Coming across as a nakedly venal Scrooge McDuck wallowing in his lucre is not. The worst thing a politician can do is say he isn't concerned about something or someone. It's old school.

And why did Romney make it sound hunky-dory that there are government programs to take care of them? After all, the standard conservative credo is that government help is not OK. That, in fact, it hampers the poor from attempting to alter their circumstances. This must be one of the few times in recent memory when a conservative Republican, which is what Romney says he is even as conservatives doubt it, has endorsed welfare programs.

Romney's remark has provoked much consternation on the right. As TalkingPointsMemo reports, a phalanx of right-wing commentators, including Jonah Goldberg and Eric Erickson, are rubbing their collective foreheads in disbelief at comrade Romney's spontaneous ability to insert his foot in his mouth. But maybe Romney is telling the truth. He really isn't much concerned about the poor (though he did qualify his remark by including the modifier "very." So an argument could be made that he does care about the poor, just not the very poor. For whatever that's worth). In that case, the Kinsley rule would be confirmed. Romney blurted out what everyone suspects about him—he's a coddled rich kid. But my hunch is that something more is at work. Romney is just a challenged campaigner. He's not a great politician. He might be a good or even great president. But it's clearly going to be an extremely difficult task for him to persuade the electorate that he is one of them. As Jonah Goldberg put it in National Review, "great politicians on the morning after a big win, don't force their supporters to go around defending their candidate from the charge that he doesn't care about the poor. They just don't."

No, they don't. Romney sounds like what he decries—an elitist. In an era when great wealth has become suspect—when Balzac's phrase that behind every great fortune lies a crime has again come into vogue—Romney is going to have a hard time distinguishing himself as an elitist all that different from President Obama. The conservative mantra, enunciated almost daily by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which appears to view Romney as a potential liberal mole, is that to accomplish that task he needs to become even more conservative.

In fact, he needs to move toward the middle, at least by the time the Republican convention rolls around. His political opponents are trying to prevent that metamorphosis from occurring. Newt Gingrich, who has become a warrior on the capitalism front, is flaying the supposedly hard-hearted Romney for his lack of a social conscience. Gingrich will remain a thorn in Romney's side, but it seems unlikely that he can inflict serious pain on Romney. Nor can Rick Sanotrum or Ron Paul (with whom Romney, according to a new report in the Washington Post, is buddies). By this point, only Romney can do that to himself. The candidate himself needs to become as disciplined as his impressive campaign.

Image: Gage Skidmore