Sometimes, the words just don’t come out right.
It’s what the Obama administration is dealing with now in their cover-up of a botched Libya policy that resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others diplomats. It’s what Paul Ryan dealt with when he came up with a bogus marathon time. It’s what I assume Joe Biden deals with whenever he needs to say things about stuff.
And it’s most certainly what candidate Mitt Romney had to deal with when he was caught on tape saying that 47% of Americans thought of themselves as “victims” who couldn’t be convinced to “take personal responsibility” for their lives.
These comments were touted as bad news, toxic news — the equivalent of a “you didn’t build that” gaffe — and something indicative of a philosophy that was unfit to occupy the executive office.
Well, maybe, but let’s calm down.
It’s important to realize that our society presents certain restrictions on what a candidate can and cannot say. In effect, if you say a thing, in a place, and to a group of people, there’s a chance that the entire country is going to hear about it and have proof that you actually said it — a chance that probably grows exponentially the closer one gets to being President of the United States.
So what we all knew deep down was just a sales pitch — a line delivered in private, to rich donors, and with an attempt to make the case seem as urgent as possible — somehow became indicative of Mitt Romney’s views on society as a whole.
But with this gaffe on their hands, one cannot help but be impressed with the Romney campaign’s damage control.
First, he stood up in defense of the sentiment, going around it with the growing numbers of government dependents and ballooning of entitlements, all while saying that it was just “not elegantly stated.” This might seem silly to us, but consider the alternative: do you stay on the offensive and stand behind a rough statement, or do you backpedal and stand around getting beat up by the Obama campaign’s shameless mudslinging?
Both approaches aren’t that great, but he picked the better option by far.
Secondly, he trounced President Obama during the first debate, and didn’t even have to deal with the 47% comment. We can assume he had an answer ready, but he came out swinging from the first answer and never had to look back.
And finally, last Thursday, with the momentum at his back, the Obama administration blundering in foreign policy, a vice presidential debate to follow, and all the talk on everything but the 47% comment, he admits to being “completely wrong.”
So how did Mitt Romney make the turn from backing his comments to calling them “completely wrong”?
Fairly simple, really. There are pros and cons to the news cycle: on the one hand, everything gets reported and it’s easy to stay informed; on the other hand, the really important stuff is often lost or forgotten under a mountain of trivial factoids and mini-controversies.
But it is also easier and easier for a candidate to rebound. The Mitt Romney who existed before last Wednesday’s debate could never have back peddled on “47 percent” in the way the post-debate Romney could. Truly, the difference was that the pre-debate Romney campaign was going completely wrong — full of flips, gaffes, and genuinely uninspiring rhetoric — and his performance turned all that around.
For all that our access to information has given us, there is one thing that has been made perfectly clear: our memories are short. It’s why nobody talks about the Obamacare mandate being unconstitutional, even though Chief Justice Roberts wrote one of the most questionable decisions in Supreme Court history (looking at you, NLRB) — we’ve just forgotten about it.
So what Romney’s “completely wrong” really shows — even in a time where Google brings up a page full of your face when it’s searched — is that one is never really “completely” anything these days. The tides can shift, situations can change, and the reporting is always eager to pick up the next hot topic.
That the Romney campaign so wisely navigated the sea of news media should be encouraging to those backing him in 2012. It shows a certain prudence in the approach, and that’s how he was able to turn statements that were “completely wrong” into a campaign that’s going “completely right.”