Every once in awhile, a presidential candidate will drop the mask and flash a fleeting glimpse of the real person beneath. Mitt Romney did this on Saturday night, much to his detriment.The woeful episode came at the 37-minute mark of the latest Republican debate. Rick Perry was needling Romney, as usual. And Romney, who has demonstrated that he doesn’t like to be needled (especially by Perry), made the mistake of taking the bait.It all started when Perry said, “You were for individual mandates, my friend” – a reference, of course, to Mitt’s Massachusetts health reform law, which requires citizens to buy coverage. Romney had suggested on public radio five years ago that most other states would be wise to follow his lead. Romney, in response: “You know what? You’ve raised that before, Rick. And you’re simply wrong.”Perry, rightly insisting that he wasn’t wrong: “It- it- it was true then. It’s true now.”Romney: “That – now, this- Rick, I’ll – I’ll tell you what. 10,000 bucks. $10,000 bet?”And there it was – vivid proof that the Romney campaign cannot afford to let Mitt be Mitt. Because the real Mitt is a rich guy who talks the way rich guys talk. In their narrow world, which is far removed from the way most people live, it’s no big deal to rhetorically or literally bet 10 grand. That debate remark was a window into the real Romney. You could picture him standing around at a country club with friends from his social and material sphere, offering to settle a disagreement with a friendly wager of 10 grand – whereas the average Joe, particularly the average Joe who’s currently out of work and strapped for cash, might feel too pinched to bet in excess of 50 bucks.Not surprisingly, Wagergate has been ricocheting around the Twittersphere. It may be the most revealing moment of patrician cluelessness since 1992, when the senior President Bush stared aghast at a supermarket scanner. Romney has been laboring overtime to hide the details of his $200-million net worth – he refuses to disclose his income tax records – but all it took was one remark to kill the fiction that he feels the pain of the general populace.And what a boon this was for Newt Gingrich, the nouveau riche lobbyist-historian who was assailed from all sides on Saturday night and drew excessive plaudits merely for keeping his cool. Newt’s most overpraised moment came midway through the debate, when he was asked to comment on his serial adulteries and the importance of character as a criterion for judging candidates. Inexplicably, his response has been hailed far and wide during the past 24 hours. Here’s what he said:”First of all, I think it is a real issue. And people have to look at the person whom they’re gonna loan the presidency. And they have the right to ask every single question. They have to have a feeling that this is a person that they can trust with the level of power we give to the presidency. And I think it’s a very, very important issue. And I think people have to render judgment. In my case, I’ve said up-front openly I’ve made mistakes at times. I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness. I’ve had to seek reconciliation. But I’m also a 68-year-old grandfather. And I think people have to measure who I am now and whether I’m a person they can trust. And all I can tell you is that, you know, I am delighted at the way people have been willing to look at who I am…”Many in the punditocracy have been raving about how well Newt disported himself as he dismantled that particular bomb. He was so humble! So honest! So open to the admission of personal error! Not a hint of defensiveness or arrogance!Witness this New York Times piece, posted yesterday afternoon: “(Gingrich) created one of the more memorable moments….He didn’t object to the question or call it stupid, as he has so many times about other subjects in previous debates. He waited patiently as the other candidates took their turns talking about their successful marriages. And then he humbly accepted responsibility for the mistakes he has made.”To which I say: So what? What else would you expect him to do? Newt knows darn well that Christian conservatives in Iowa (his intended audience on Saturday night) will forgive virtually any sin as long as the sinner humbly seeks redemption. So he went into humility mode. More importantly, this was nothing new. He has been rehearsing and honing that humility pitch for a long time.The Times gushed yesterday that Newt’s adultery answer was “un-Gingrich-like,” marveling about how he had kept his cool. Well, big deal. He’s had nearly five years of practice on that dicey issue.On March 9, 2007, Newt appeared on a radio show hosted by Christian conservative icon James Dobson. Here’s what Newt said about his marital history: “There are some elements I’m not proud of….There were times when I was praying, and when I felt I was doing things that were wrong, but I was still doing them. I look back at this as periods of weakness, periods not only that I’m not proud of, but I deeply urge my grandchildren not to follow in my footsteps….I believe deeply that people fall short, that people have to recognize they have to turn to God for forgiveness….I don’t know how you could live with yourself…if you don’t deal with your own weaknesses and go to God about them.”Sound familiar?But Newt is catching all the breaks these days. Fortunately for him, his chief rival is a guy who hails from an entitled strata where patricians can talk casually about $10,000 bets. With the recession still raging and populist sentiments on the ascent, sexual infidelity (coupled with rehearsed humility) doesn’t seem so egregious. The average Republican may well decide that it is Romney, in a country-club moment, who has committed the greater sin of character.
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