Republicans agree that Mitt Romney is struggling to break free of a series of unforced errors and missteps. How he should respond is another matter.
In videos published by Mother Jones magazine, the Republican presidential nominee tells a private audience of campaign donors that supporters of President Obama will vote for the president “no matter what.” Romney adds that he does not “worry about those people.”
“There are 47 percent who are with him,” Romney said of Obama, “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. These are people who pay no income tax.”
In response, New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks compared Romney to Thurston Howell III, the wealthy character from the television show “Gilligan’s Island” who embodied for many television viewers the behavior of elitist New Englanders.
Brooks wrote that Romney’s comments suggest he “doesn’t know much about the culture of America” and later that he “doesn’t know much about the political culture.”
“The Republican Party, and apparently Mitt Romney, too, has shifted over toward a much more hyperindividualistic and atomistic social view — from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers,” Brooks added. “There’s no way the country will trust the Republican Party to reform the welfare state if that party doesn’t have a basic commitment to provide a safety net for those who suffer for no fault of their own.”
Brooks called Romney “a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?”
Brooks was not alone in condemning Romney’s remarks. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said it remains critical that Romney win the election, “But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Romney’s comments, like those of Obama four years ago, are stupid and arrogant.”
Kristol was referring to comments Obama made in April 2008 when he said that certain voters “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy” to explain their frustrations.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said he agreed that the former governor inartfully articulated his argument, but added that the Republican presidential candidate was broaching a subject worthy of further discussion.
“When I campaign, I campaign on four pillars: fiscal discipline, limited government, accountability and a strong national defense, and I talk about the need for the government to provide a safety net,” Chaffetz said. “But we should be encouraging training and other types of things to get people back on their feet so they don’t have to have this government dependency. That’s totally consistent with what Governor Romney has been advocating and campaigning on.”
But more moderate Republicans facing tougher elections sought to distance themselves from Romney’s comments. Linda McMahon, who has seen her chances improve in the Connecticut U.S. Senate race, said she disagreed with Romney’s “insinuation that 47% of Americans believe they are victims who must depend on the government for their care.”
In a statement posted on her Web site early Tuesday, McMahon said that “I know that the vast majority of those who rely on government are not in that situation because they want to be. People today are struggling because the government has failed to keep America competitive.”
Chris Murphy, McMahon’s Democratic opponent, said her comments were the “latest desperate attempt to distance herself from the right-wing agenda and Republican party she strongly supports.”
Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, whose MSNBC program “Morning Joe” is a favorite of Beltway insiders, spent most of his program Tuesday pillorying Romney’s misstep.
“Those words would never cross the lips of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan,” Scarborough told his co-hosts. “They would never say that in a million years. This guy is seeming — he just seems too insulated by wealth and by life experience.”
Later, on NBC’s “Today,” Scarborough said Romney was reeling from “one of the worst weeks for any presidential candidate in a general election that any of us can remember.”
“This is dangerous – not because he’s going to lose that 47 percent of the vote – but because you’re going to start seeing suburban voters, swing voters, storm away from the campaign as quickly as possible unless he fixes it,” Scarborough added.
Appearing on the same NBC program, businessman and Romney supporter Donald Trump said Romney shouldn’t apologize for his comment.
“We’ve seen enough apologizing already,” Trump said. “He cannot apologize. What he said is probably what he means, and he did say [it was] inartfully stated. The fact is he cannot apologize, he is going for those independents, but he won’t get the votes of a lot of people he’s discussing, and if you’re not going to get their votes, let’s go on with it, but do not apologize.”
Trump also lamented that Republicans generally “are not being tough enough. They’re not – I can’t say down and dirty – but that’s exactly what President Obama is doing with them. They have to fight fire with fire, the Republicans have to get tougher or they’re going to lose this campaign.”
But Rick Davis, who advised Sen. John McCain’s failed 2008 presidential bid, attempted to put the Romney comments in context and urged the GOP candidate to use the moment to recast his campaign.
Noting that “everybody has their YouTube moment in American politics,” Davis told “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday that Romney’s response to the videos in the coming days is “critical.”
“This is a character-building moment,” Davis said. “The American public looks in at various times during a campaign and I promise you they’ll be looking in this week. And it may be a fresh candidate for Mitt Romney the candidate to try to connect with voters.”
But conservative radio talk show host and commentator Laura Ingraham said Romney was merely expressing a viewpoint shared by many political pundits – that the nation is closely divided and that Romney and Obama are fighting to convince just a small slice of the electorate.
“The percentage might be off by 1 or 2 percentage points depending on how you formulate it,” Ingraham told Fox News. “The bottom line is Mitt Romney speaking at a fundraiser about the challenges a Republican faces in this presidential race – not all that unlike what political pundits, many of them hyperventilating today, have said. That there is a small slice of the electorate that is undecided. That’s basically what he said there.”
“The idea that you’re declaring, ‘Well, the race is over. Mitt Romney doesn’t care about people.’ Meanwhile, you have a president whose policies have undermined the 47 percent.”
Ingraham added that the political press should focus more on Obama’s plans to spend most of Tuesday raising money from celebrities — including musicians Jay-Z and Beyonce – after appearing tonight on CBS’s “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
She did not mention that a taped interview with Romney is slated to air on the popular daytime television program “Live with Kelly and Michael.”