For all the talk this past week about Mitt Romney's latest gems -- his "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me" line and his "There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip" -- I'm surprised more people haven't reckoned with the fact that they were quite inconsistent statements. One was meant to express empathy with economically distressed voters, one was meant to reflect a business-minded toughness and clarity. They were spoken within a day of one another. So what gives? Well, here's what many are missing in trying to make sense of why Romney says these sorts of things. It's all about the context.
No, not just the context of what he meant to say when he said them (the "I like being able to fire people" line was said in regards to health insurance choice.) I mean the context in which he says things -- that is, the place and audience he is speaking to. After observing Romney on the trail, it's become clear to me that he is someone who is acutely aware of the sort of people he is speaking to, and that he often tries too hard in trying to reach what he imagines is the id of that group.
The best candidates, of course, are those who are able to pick up on the vibe of the audience and tailor the tone and content of their remarks accordingly. With Romney, the tailoring is far more crude and obvious. Some of it is relatively innocuous, if wince-inducing -- in Iowa, the lines of "America the Beautiful" that he quotes are the ones about "amber waves of grain," while in New Hampshire it's "purple mountains majesty." But occasionally, the imperative to meet the imagined sweet spot of his audience produces the lines that make unfortunate headlines and fodder for fun video compilations by his rivals. It is no accident that the "pink slip" line came when Romney was speaking to voters in Rochester, N.H., what he knows from his ample time spent in the state to be one of the cluster of struggling former milltowns clustered in the Seacoast region near the Maine line. The irony, of course, is that the crowd that he drew to the town Opera House was, from all appearances, more upscale than the one that Rick Santorum drew the next day in nearby Somerworth. But data-driven Romney knew that he was in hard-luck country, and so out popped the empathy line, comically overdone.
And where was he when he made his "I like being able to fire people" remarks? Speaking before the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce. The Romney campaign has been open about the fact that it is trying extra hard to reach out to local businessmen -- the insurance guys and small-town bankers who belong to the Rotary and the local Chamber, types that Romney sees as his natural constituency. Even when he's in front of a general audience on the trail, he'll often ask whether there are any businesspeople in the room. So there he is at the Nashua Chamber, wearing a blazer and dress shirt as opposed to the jeans and plaid that he had the day before in Rochester, and he starts to wax businessman. The inexplicably poorly worded line makes slightly more sense if it's seen as an attempt to build camaraderie, confidence, with the guys in blazers arrayed in front of him. In Mitt's mind, this was locker-room talk, Chamber-style: "Hey, don't you guys kind of get off on being able to cut off a lousy supplier or a service provider? Kind of a little kick, delivering the justice of the free market on your very own?"
So keep an eye out for this. Now that he's in South Carolina, you can be sure he, like the other candidates, will be doing plenty of union-bashing around the NLRB-Boeing standoff. But if you hear that a candidate's dropping hints about secession or quoting John Calhoun, don't assume it's Rick Perry. It might be Mitt Romney, ever so subtly playing to the room.
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