In the two years since he told an audience of millionaires in Florida that 47 percent of the Americans will always vote for Democrats because they’re moochers “who pay no income tax” and don’t take “personal responsibility…for their lives,” Mitt Romney has explained himself a few different ways. But I believe this story, based on an interview with The New York Times’ Mark Leibovich, is the first time he’s said his comments came out wrong because he got knocked off balance by an aggressive audience member.
Romney told me that the statement came out wrong, because it was an attempt to placate a rambling supporter who was saying that Obama voters were essentially deadbeats.
“My mistake was that I was speaking in a way that reflected back to the man,” Romney said. “If I had been able to see the camera, I would have remembered that I was talking to the whole world, not just the man.”
The first part of that blockquote is Leibovich’s paraphrase or interpretation of Romney’s comments, so I don’t know if Romney actually used the words “rambling” or “deadbeats.” I sent Leibovich an email asking whether this is his gloss, or a close approximation of Romney’s phrasing.
But I do know that the Q&A section of the fundraiser, including the supporter’s question, were caught on tape, too. And Romney’s recollection just doesn’t wash. The question that supposedly tripped him up begins at about 35:15.
"For the last three years, all everybody's been told is, ‘Don't worry, we'll take care of you.’ How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you got to take care of yourself?"
This is about as gentle, concise, and predictable as any question a serious Republican candidate will ever field from a donor behind closed doors. Romney’s long, studied response—which wasn't marked by the clumsiness of a pol trying to brush off, say, a racist or a 9/11 truther—actually underscores that point.
Romney had no small share of difficulties communicating and connecting with the Republican party's ranting base, but the 47 percent exchange doesn’t contain any of the awkwardness of, say, his paean to grits and the term “y’all,” or the $10,000 bet he tried to make with Rick Perry, or the time he related to racing enthusiasts by bragging about his friends who own NASCAR teams. Romney was right at home with the classist donor in Boca Raton. He saw things the same way, and had teased out the underlying political-economy in his head. He repeated the same basic concept a week after he lost, when he claimed Obama won by showering minorities and younger voters with "generous" "gifts." And we know he grappled with the concept before the fundraiser, because he vetted and then selected Paul Ryan as his running mate. One of Ryan’s main contributions to the political discourse at the time was a relentless drumbeat about America's dangerous tranformation into a society where “takers” outnumber “makers.”
Like most leading GOP figures, Ryan hasn’t abandoned the conceptual underpinnings of the takers/makers dichotomy. But in contrast to Romney, he now acknowledges that referring to a large number of Americans as “takers” is offensive, and unwise: He told Charlie Rose on Monday night that Romney's 47 percent remark "was wrong" and that the party needs to be careful about "slighting people who are depending on government." I’m not sure there’s a politically neutral way to describe such a divisive worldview, but since that worldview's here to stay for now, Ryan at least admits the GOP should try and find one.
Of course, that’s just another way of saying Paul and Romney hadn’t workshopped a palatable alternative to "takers" or 47 percenters back in September 2012. Romney can wish that this particular donor hadn’t chimed in with a question that day. But he can’t blame the question for the timbre or pitch of his response. “47 percent” wasn’t a gaffe or a brushoff. It was one of the foundational beliefs of his campaign. If you were paying attention before the video surfaced, you already understood this. The video simply made it easier to convince an incredulous public that anyone running for president would carry such disdain for half the country.