Have we finally seen the real Mitt Romney?
A video released yesterday depicts Romney insisting that “47 percent” of the country is composed of freeloaders who are under-taxed relative to the rich, depend on government handouts and lack a sense of personal responsibility, and it was taken at a private gathering at which, Romney says, he was speaking “off-the-cuff.”
“The video exposes an authentic Romney,” New York Magazine’s Jon Chait writes. “Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party.”
But the video is just as easily — probably more easily — seen as another example of how inauthentic Romney often seems. Romney was not speaking to a group of close friends; he was at a fundraiser in a hedge-fund manager’s Florida home. That’s an audience primed to feel as though the government captures too much of the wealth they create in order to support Americans who do not apply their abilities as usefully. Moreover, the footage dates to May 17, just as Romney was emerging from a primary season in which complaining that half of Americans do not pay income taxes was a common, if ideologically confusing, applause line among the uber-conservative also-rans who each threatened Romney at various times during the race.
If Romney’s history provides evidence of any core strategic instinct, it’s this: He responds aggressively to the incentives placed in front of him at any given time. It should not be surprising that Romney would denigrate the “takers” in America in front of a group “makers,” from whom he wants big checks. Nor should it be surprising that he would do so just as he was finishing a primary campaign in which he was sometimes uncomfortably desperate to prove his acceptability to the GOP’s base and donors.
Perhaps political incentives and personal preferences better aligned for Romney in 2012 than in past years — perhaps the more conservative Mitt is the more authentic Mitt. But the “47 percent” video is not really evidence of that. Instead, it leaves Americans with the same old Romney conundrum: What would he say if he didn’t have to raise that money or sidle up to the right? And which is worse: Romney believing in some of the simplistic conservative dogmas he endorsed here and elsewhere, or Romney not believing in them? Either way, all those from the center-right leftward have reason to worry.