Romney’s crisis: How to appeal to Obama “switchers” post-tape

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WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney’s disdain for President Barack Obama’s supporters — surfacing in videotaped remarks made to mega-donors — presents him with his most serious crisis yet.

There is a saying in politics that is apt here: You are losing if you are explaining.

A videotape of Romney speaking candidly at a closed-to-the press fund-raiser in Florida last May (top price $50,000 per person) was obtained, verified and posted by David Corn, the Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones.

Speaking off-the-cuff — there is a reason candidates are scripted: it keeps them out of trouble — Romney’s biggest problem comes from his conflated comments about the 47 percent of people he said were Obama backers. He turns them into slackers and freeloaders.

“All right, 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,” he said.

“And they will vote for this president no matter what. And that — I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 40 — he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.”

He 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.”

This is damage that is going to be hard to control:

At the very least, it is a massive distraction. The Romney camp had planned for this week to be devoted to hearing more details about Romney’s plans — for the middle class — that he only a few days ago defined as those who earn upward of $200,000 a year.

This comes as we head toward three potentially game-changing presidential debates. The first is Oct. 3 in Denver. Even if other events overtake the presidential campaign conversation in the coming days — especially in the volatile Middle East — Romney better be ready, because Obama is going to come after him.

On that 47 percent who don’t pay income taxes (not to be confused with 47 percent who back Obama.) That’s correct about income taxes — as far as it goes. But that statistic is not all that meaningful if you know the whole story: Most people do pay federal taxes through payroll deductions for Medicare and Social Security. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 44 percent who don’t pay income taxes are senior citizens who get tax breaks supported by Democrats and Republicans.

And to say that Obama backers are entitled victims? But it’s not Obama. Breaks go to everyone on Medicare — that’s every senior in the United States — and everyone who gets a home mortgage deduction or tax breaks for student loans or charitable giving or home-office use or VA benefits.

Most dangerous for Romney is this: The only way he can win — and he says this in his remarks to his donors — is by persuading disappointed Obama 2008 voters to give up on the president — and his remarks play into Obama’s hands like an in-kind campaign contribution.

This might not be the year of the compassionate conservative — a term coined when George W. Bush ran in 2000. But Romney is close to making 2012 the year of the callus conservative (if, by the way, you believe he is really conservative).

Gaffes about class are hard to work around — ask Obama, he knows. In April 2008, he was secretly recorded — audio, not video — at a $1,000-per-person fund-raiser in San Francisco where he famously said blue-collar down-and-out folks are “bitter” and “cling” to their guns and religion.

This came just before what was then a hard-fought Pennsylvania primary between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Clinton immediately started running ads framing Obama as an out-of-touch elitist.

In 2008, a few days after the “bitter” gaffe, Obama told a news industry group that he had made a mistake — but called the uproar he created with his own words a “fake controversy” and said people are “fed up with politicians trying to divide us for their own political gain.” Obama went on to lose the Pennsylvania primary to Clinton.

Do not expect that to stop Obama — with fresh ammunition — from portraying Romney as an elitist who wants tax cuts for millionaires.

Footnotes

Corn told me the person who shot the video is not part of any political campaign organization and did not go to the fund-raiser to nail Romney. At first a few snippets from the video were posted online and didn’t get much attention because no one knew who shot it, where Romney was or other details. That person was found by a free-lance researcher assisting Corn, Corn told me. That researcher — James Carter — is a grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.

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