If one thing should be clear by now, it is that nothing a president or presidential candidate says is private. Assume every microphone is hot, every fundraiser is public, every side comment will be reported.
You would think by this time — having been burned on the height of the trees in Michigan, his friendship with NASCAR owners and the family Cadillacs — Mitt Romney would appreciate that. With only weeks to go until the election, you would think a candidate who has been criticized repeatedly for being scripted would know that he needs to be careful when he goes off script.
It's a matter of discipline, but also of judgment.
Knowing all that, how in the world could Romney say this:
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. 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. And they will vote for this president no matter what. ... These are people who pay no income tax."
"(M)y job is not to worry about those people," Romney reportedly said. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Romney's campaign does not dispute the accuracy of the quote. Romney does not even disown the substance of what he said. According to him, the only thing "wrong" with his dismissal of 47 percent of the voting public as "victims" who depend on government and "pay no income tax" is that he chose his words poorly.
"It's not elegantly stated, let me put it that way," he said. "It's a message I'm going to carry and continue to carry — which is, look, the president's approach is attractive to people who are not paying taxes, because, frankly, my discussion about lowering taxes isn't as attractive to them. Therefore, I'm not likely to draw them into my campaign as effectively as those who are in the middle."
Let me state the obvious: The government would shut down tomorrow if 47 percent of all voters paid no taxes. As a matter of fact, many of us, myself included, not only pay taxes, but pay them at higher rates than Romney does. I don't depend on the government for my job or my health care or my kids' college tuition. I take personal responsibility not only for myself, but also for friends and family whom I am fortunate enough — and work hard enough — to be able to help.
As for Romney's "job," the idea that a president need only concern himself with those who vote for him, that he has written off nearly half the country as victims who won't vote for him for that reason, is wrong as a matter of principle and stunningly wrong as a matter of politics.
Romney is already vulnerable because he has not made full disclosure of his tax returns. He is already vulnerable because many working people — people who take responsibility, work hard, play be the rules, don't depend on the government for any form of handout — worry that Romney simply doesn't "get" people like them. Romney is already vulnerable, particularly after his choice of Paul Ryan, because many senior citizens, who built this country and now do depend on the nation's two biggest "entitlement" programs, Social Security and Medicare, are worried that Romney and Ryan will not protect those programs.
Those are major vulnerabilities. But perhaps the biggest problem with Romney's statements goes to the larger question of whether the poor judgment reflected in these remarks undermines his broader case that he is qualified to be president. The easiest way to beat a challenger is to paint him as a risk: the devil you don't know. Remarks like this call into question not only whether Romney "gets" it, but also whether he is ready to be president.
If 47 percent have already decided not to vote for him, as Romney concedes, then it will only take 3 percent more to seal his fate.
To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.