Seamus McGraw: Mitt Romney's Gaffes Are Needlessly Weakening Him Against Obama

Anybody who has ever been in a singles bar at closing time ought to have a little sympathy for Mitt Romney’s Republican supporters right about now.

After all, we all know what it’s like.

You’ve spent hours in the comforting, carefully orchestrated shadows of the bar, nursing both an overpriced drink and that anxious sense of expectation that maybe this time you’ll get lucky. And then, all of a sudden the bartender switches the lights on, and all those lusty illusions are vaporized in a frigid, fluorescent blast of reality.

Last week, when a secretly made tape surfaced in which Mitt Romney appeared to tell donors at a $50,000-a-plate dinner in May that nearly half of all Americans were essentially unmotivated slackers angling to live off government handouts, the bartender turned on the lights.

As many leading Republicans -- Bill Kristol and Peggy Noonan among them -- have fretted, the damage that Romney inflicted on himself was all the more egregious because it not only turned on the unflattering lights, it focused every watt of them  on what many Democrats, some Republicans and a growing number of independents secretly suspected about him, but tried to suppress.

Go ahead. Give it the most charitable interpretation.

Take him at his word that what he’s really concerned about are the 100 percent of Americans who are laboring under the weight of a poorly managed economic recovery.

His callous dismissal of 47 percent of the voters as un-self-actualized moochers still reinforces a preexisting narrative, true or not -- an image of Romney as a bumbling, out-of-touch oligarch who would say anything to achieve what he believes is his birthright.

That’s an image he only strengthened last Friday when he released his 2011 income tax return, showing that he paid a 14.1 percent rate, but only because he fudged and didn’t take a larger deduction for his charitable contributions, primarily to his Mormon church, a perfectly legal maneuver that nonetheless opened him up to charges of hypocrisy and opportunism by his critics.

This election could have been a stark contrast between two competing visions for the country -- the rightist vision of unfettered individualism and the free market unchained, versus the kind of progressive managed approach that Obama preaches but does not really execute. 

— Seamus McGraw

Add to that pile of missteps the other comments he made that evening in May–his baffling pledge to do nothing on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict other than to give up hope on the two-state solution that has been the policy of the U.S. government for 30 years.

Or take Romney’s utterly absurd (and apparently facetious) comment that if had he only been born to Mexican parents he could have more easily been able to overcome the obstacles laid in his path by his privileged birth.

After all, how cynical would you have to be to insinuate that any Mexican immigrant to the notoriously tolerant state of Texas in 1912 would face anything but a path strewn with rose petals directly to the top job at one of America’s leading automakers?

Or that he would able to parlay that into a job as governor of Michigan, or that he would be able to use that perch to propel his son to Harvard and provide him with the portfolio of stocks rich enough to both buy and ample supply of tuna and pasta and help found Bain Capital?

And how could anyone doubt that the same boy would someday become the Republican candidate for President of the United States, a nomination he would win, in part, by attacking the DREAM Act and belittling Texas Governor Rick Perry’s support for in-state college tuition for children of undocumented workers, while embracing (and later distancing himself from) the immigration polices of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and U.S. Rep. Steve King?

You needn’t even go back to May. You need go back no further than when Romney, rejecting the very argument he had made himself just a few years ago, suggested that there’s no need for universal health care since Americans in need of medical attention need only postpone care until they’re sick enough, and an ambulance will cheerfully cart them to any one of the nation’s already overwhelmed emergency rooms, while everybody else foots the bill.

What makes this cascading series of gaffes so maddening to many Republicans is that – while there are still 41 days to go and there remains a glimmer of a chance that some unforeseen event could turn this race around – none of it had to happen.

Running against a personally popular but politically compromised incumbent in the fourth year of one of the weakest economic recoveries in history, Romney not only could have won, he should have.

All he had to do was convince his base, which was already virulently anti-Obama, that he was better than the president. All he had to do was convince moderate Democrats and independents that he wasn’t any worse; thus, even if they didn’t vote for him, they would be unlikely to turn out droves to vote against him.

And yet he failed even that simple task, a task he was almost preternaturally designed to perform.

His management of this political crisis, his management of his entire campaign thus far, in fact, plays into another – perhaps unfair—characterization of Romney:  that despite his fervent wish that he had been born the child of Mexican immigrants, his much-touted management skills have been overstated, and his success in business had more to do with his connections than with his ability.

And what makes it so maddening to those who are not Republicans is that Romney’s gaffes have turned this into an election about nothing.

It didn’t have to be this way.

This election could have been a stark contrast between two competing visions for the country -- the rightist vision of unfettered individualism and the free market unchained, versus the kind of progressive managed approach that Obama preaches but does not really execute.

This could have been a showdown election between the right and the center-left. It isn't. It’s become a campaign where the dominant issue is the campaign itself.

But maybe there is a silver lining. Maybe this wasted election year has made it more likely that the next one will actually be about something.

Sure, if Romney does go down in defeat, if the Republicans do leave the bar alone as they seem likely to do, they’ll grumble the same way we all do when we fail to score.

The further right you go on the GOP spectrum, the more a Romney defeat will likely be chalked up to his lack of ideological purity, and the odds are better than even that the party, or at least a significant part of it, will gravitate toward a more authentic-seeming social and economic conservative, a Rick Santorum, perhaps.

A new wingman couldn’t hurt.

I also suspect that when the left gets another dose of Obama's measured pragmatism, they too will demand something less watered down. I could be wrong. We'll see. The lights get turned down low again on Nov. 7.

Maybe next time, one of us will get lucky.