Newt Gingrich has an exquisitely sensitive moral antenna, and Mitt Romney's remark suggesting indifference to the poor sent it quivering. "I am fed up with politicians in either party dividing Americans against each other," he said. Yes, he did. Then he fell on the floor and laughed till he cried.
For Gingrich to disavow divisiveness is the equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg renouncing modern technology: Without it, we never would have heard of him. Newt has spent his career ceaselessly inventing ways to foment and exploit hatred of one group by another.
He's the guy who warned of "a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us." He likened those supporting a mosque near Ground Zero to Nazis.
He said Democrats are "the party of total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness, and the total right to cripple innocent people in the name of letting hooligans loose." Oh, and the poor? He said poor teens don't work "unless it's illegal." Nobody but us unifiers here!
Romney's comment has been described as a classic political gaffe, which consists not of telling a lie but telling the truth. In fact, it was classic political nonsense, in which inartful wording is twisted to pretend the speaker meant something he clearly didn't.
It was done to John Kerry in 2004, when a line intended as a jibe at President George W. Bush — saying those who don't "study hard" end up "stuck in Iraq" — was alleged to be a slander on the intelligence of American troops.
It happened to Romney when, referring to the right of consumers to "fire" unsatisfactory health insurers, he said, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." Cut off the last five words, ignore the context, and gotcha!
What Romney meant in his latest episode is that, while he favors providing an adequate safety net for the poor, his primary focus is on generating jobs and economic growth for the mass of people. If he had been caught saying, "Who gives a damn about poor people?" he would be guilty of rank callousness. But he didn't, and his policies on poverty are not readily distinguishable from any other Republican's.
Still, few Republicans will be moved to vote against Romney out of tearful solicitude for the bottom 5 percent. If the economy is floundering next November, swing voters will have no trouble forgetting this incident.
His obstacles lie more with his wooden insincerity and his history of flip-flopping. But those stem from a bigger problem that has largely escaped notice: the mystery of why he's running.
Romney takes pride in not being a career politician, a boast that evoked one of Gingrich's few illuminating retorts: "Let's be candid, the only reason you didn't become a career politician is you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994." If going into politics to create jobs is justified, why isn't it commendable to spend a career in politics to create jobs?
He extols his record of building businesses and creating jobs in the private sector. If he's so good at that, though, why not stay there?
We know why most candidates undertake the race — Al Gore to avert environmental catastrophe, George W. Bush to carry on the family business, John McCain to serve his country and Obama to heal racial and ideological divisions.
Romney just seems like a rich guy who needs a new challenge. "I have a good life with my family, my wife," he says. "I don't have to win. I just want to win because I care about the country."
Ronald Reagan could have said the same thing, but with him it was believable. Reagan was driven by a distinct vision of what America should be. Romney, by contrast, is willing to serve whatever cause will get him elected.
His attitude is: Tell me what you want me to be and I'll be it. But one thing voters want is someone who doesn't do that.
About Gingrich's motive, there has never been any doubt: to feed an insatiable ego that makes him imagine he has a historic, God-given mission to transform the country. He's a mad scientist, mixing volatile potions that may cure cancer or may blow up the lab. Either way, he'll have fun.
Romney doesn't have an obvious reason to run for president. That's his trouble. Gingrich does. That's his.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. To find out more about Steve Chapman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.