Let’s not kid ourselves: Mitt Romney’s 47% riff is damning whether or not he actually believes what he said. Still, it’s worth pausing briefly to reflect on the chances that a would-be president really thinks half his fellow citizens are moochers. 

Jon Chait, arguing for the prosecution, is convinced the remarks reflect Romney’s actual worldview:

Romney explained to reporters tonight that his remarks were not “elegantly stated,” but did not repudiate them as his true beliefs. In fact, it was quite eloquently stated. The Romney speaking to fund-raisers was not the halting, smarmy figure so frequently on public display but an eloquent and passionate orator. He had no reason to believe his donors needed to hear him denounce the poor — they would have been perfectly satisfied with a bromide about how cutting taxes on the rich will create opportunity for one and all. Instead he put himself forward as the hopeful president of the top half of America against the bottom.

In Romney’s defense, such as it is, rises John McCormack of The Weekly Standard, who argues that Romney must have been pandering. Because the vision of conservatism he put forth was so cartoonishly off-base that no actual conservative would subscribe to it. You’d only find it in someone impersonating a conservative—badly. Which, as it happens, is something Romney has a history of doing. He is, after all, the same candidate who gave us “I was a severely conservative Republican governor,” and “We’re the party of people who want to get rich.” As McCormack concludes:

The reason such remarks keep slipping out of Mitt Romney’s mouth is not that Romney wants to wage a class war against lower-income Americans. The likely problem is that Mitt Romney is not a conservative—or at least wasn’t a conservative until late in life—but he is running for president as the nominee of the conservative party on a conservative platform. So he has trouble defending conservative ideas. And when he sells himself to conservatives, he sometimes comes across as a right-wing caricature.

Now, these two arguments aren’t mutually exclusive. Romney could be lousy at impersonating a conservative, leading to the rash of outbursts McCormack cites, but could still have been speaking candidly at the fundraiser. McCormack points out that the substantive problem with Romney’s comments is that bona fide conservatives don’t think of themselves as writing off people who depend on government; they believe their policies will lift them up. But maybe Romney doesn’t believe that and wasn’t trying to articulate conservative principles in this instance. Maybe he really is just a sneering plutocrat, as Chait puts it, which is a different creature from a true-believing conservative (even if liberals would argue that their policies amount to the same thing). In that case, it seems plausible that he was just wallowing in his worldview among fellow sneer-ers.

So who’s right? The circumstantial evidence seems to point Chait’s way. As he observes, “a candidate’s statements behind closed doors to people who already support him are more likely to reflect his true beliefs than public statements designed to appeal to those who don’t share his beliefs.” 

And yet I’m not so sure that’s what went down here. Recall the context for this fundraiser, which came only a few weeks after Romney’s comments at another private fundraiser leaked out. At that fundraiser, Romney didn’t talk about writing off the poor; he talked about squeezing the rich (at least a bit) by eliminating certain tax deductions. At which point the Tea Party went nuts, and Romney spent the next few days in full retreat. He even appeared at a Tea Party event to proclaim that, “Taxes by their very definition limit our freedom. They should be as small as possible to do things that are absolutely vital.” 

In the aftermath of Moocherpalooza, NBC’s First Read despaired that “[e]ven the folks who shell out $50,000 in contributions aren’t going to see an unguarded moment from political candidates. Everything—and we mean everything—is going to be considered for public consumption.” But it’s very likely that, for Romney at least, that change had taken place a few weeks earlier. And that he assumed there was a pretty good chance these comments would get out, too.  

Which is why my money’s on McCormack’s theory. Romney wasn’t bearing his plutocratic soul. He was trying to channel the Tea Party so he wouldn’t get smacked around again. (I consider Romney’s constant terror of the right to be his biggest strategic failing.) It’s precisely because Romney doesn’t believe government dependency is the existential problem Tea Partiers consider it to be—because he doesn’t sit around dreaming about how to sell Ayn Rand to swing voters in Dayton—that he completely mangled the delivery here, asserting that everyone who doesn’t pay income tax (a category that includes him) is a moocher. The difference between Paul Ryan, a true-believing persecutor of moochers, and Romney, who’s only posing as one, is that Ryan can litigate his case without antagonizing 100 million people. 

As I say, that hardly excuses the comment. In some ways it makes worse because of the cynicism involved. Likewise, Romney clearly isn’t immune from authentic feelings of class superiority—his insistence at the same fundraiser that he “inherited nothing” struck me as authentically blinkered, regardless of how you might parse it to make it literally true. And it’s worth pointing out that whatever Romney’s actual motivations, many of his policies are consistent with someone who believes in writing off people who depend on government benefits, so in some sense it doesn’t matter what he was getting at. 

Still, I have a hard time believing Romney is motivated by contempt for nearly half the country—which isn’t, you know, the most desirable quality in a president. And this latest flap hasn't persuaded me otherwise. 

Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber