It has been said that if you want a friend in politics, get a dog. Mitt Romney could use one right now.
What happened to him yesterday was a classic example of how unfair politics can be. He was clearly victimized by a feeding frenzy – although, for reasons to be shortly explained, this particular victim does not deserve much sympathy.Romney kicked off the episode in the early afternoon, when he said this:
“I want people to be able to own insurance if they wish to, and to buy it for themselves and perhaps keep it for the rest of their life and to choose among different policies offered from companies across the nation. I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep people healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.”
Note the italicized phrase. It instantly ricocheted around the Twittersphere, and became quick grist for Romney’s Republican foes. Jon Huntsman told reporters, “Governor Romney enjoys firing people, I enjoy creating jobs.” Rick Perry posted an online ring tone that featured Romney uttering the phrase in an endless loop. By nightfall, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, the phrase was Romney’s albatross.This was unfair to Romney, of course, because the phrase was wrenched out of context. He didn’t actually extol the joy of firing workers (which is how the phrase reads without the context); he was talking about consumer satisfaction, the process of replacing a bad service provider with a good service provider.Nevertheless, the errant phrase seems to reinforce what many people already feel about Romney – a rich guy to the manor born, who got a lot richer at an investment firm that made killer profits by sometimes shuttering companies and firing the workers. In politics, the optics matter. In politics, timing is everything. It was grievously bad timing to say “I like being able to fire people” on virtually the same day that everyone was scrutinizing his lucrative track record at Bain Capital.The phrase is a tad disturbing, anyway. When the average person changes plumbers or dentists or car mechanics, does he happily relish the idea that he has “fired” someone? I doubt it. What kind of person talks or thinks that way? Only a master of the universe, not you or I. (Indeed, Romney is well aware of the chasm that separates him from you and I. This weekend, he said there once was a time when he too dreaded getting a pink slip. But neither he nor his staffers could cite a specific instance.) Fairly or not, his firing-people phrase seems to suggest his sense of entitlement – much the way that John Kerry’s infamous remark (“I actually voted for the $87 billion, before I voted against it”) seemed to suggest that the ’04 Democratic candidate was a flip-flopper. On his day of doom, Kerry had been trying to explain a fine point of congressional procedure. He had originally supported a Democratic bill that would’ve paid for the Iraq war by reducing the Bush tax cuts; ultimately, he opposed the final war-funding bill as a protest against Bush’s war conduct. In other words, this was standard Washington sausage-making. But Kerry’s clumsy phrase was successfully wrenched out of context by the Bush campaign team, and it dogged him for the rest of the campaign.Was it fair? Nope. But that’s how the game is played.And Romney deserves scant sympathy, because he plays it the same way. Just two months ago, he aired an ad that made it seem like President Obama didn’t want to talk about the economy for fear of losing re-election; it turned out that the line had been wrenched out of context. Candidate Obama had actually said it in 2008, quoting a John McCain aide who didn’t want McCain to talk about the economy. The Romney people defended the ad by saying that Obama had uttered the actual words, and that was good enough for them.Now we have Romney uttering actual words, and that’s good enough for a lot of people. As the saying goes, he has been hoist by his own petard.And yet, even now, Romney is playing the game. Yesterday afternoon, he defended himself by explaining that he had merely been trying to talk about consumer choice in health care. So far, so good. That was indeed the context of his earlier remarks. But then he added this: “I don’t want to live in a world where we have Obamacare telling us which insurance we have to have, which doctor we can have, which hospital we go to.”See the problem? In an attempt to recover from being unfairly maligned, he doubled down by lying. The health reform law doesn’t tell us which insurance we have to have, which doctor we can have, or which hospital we go to. Romney just made that up.So I won’t much mourn the injustice suffered by Romney yesterday. And if his firing phrase winds up costing him votes in New Hampshire tonight and South Carolina next Saturday, then so be it. As Romney himself said about politics the other night, “This ain’t beanbag.”——-
I’ll be talking politics tonight, along with various esteemed panelists, at a WHYY event that’s open to the public (free to WHYY members, minimal fee for non-members). If you’re in town, stop by.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1