For about 30 seconds on Monday night, it looked like Mitt Romney might actually survive his “not elegantly stated” dismissal of almost half of the country he seeks to lead.
Had he sought to spark a legitimate debate about the role of government, the Republican nominee might have been able to justify his comment that supporters of President Barack Obama do not pay income taxes and, hence, do not “connect” with his plan to cut them.
At the very least, the secretly taped video obtained by Mother Jones magazine that shows the GOP nominee unleashing before donors who paid at least $50,000 (U.S.) to attend a May fund-raiser offers voters a window onto a refreshingly provocative Mr. Romney.
Stiff and scripted in public – to such a degree that the only memorable words he utters beyond his focus-group-tested sound bites are the ones he accidentally blurts out – the video shows a candidate with real opinions and a clear-eyed campaign strategy.
But the problem with those opinions is two-fold. First, it leads to the inevitable question of whether Mr. Romney was merely telling hard-core conservative donors what they wanted to hear by slamming the “47 per cent” of Americans who are “dependent on government.”
That would be bad enough. But the second point is that if Mr. Romney was really channeling his own views on Americans who consider themselves “victims” and “entitled to health-care, to food, to housing, to you name it,” then he may really be the heartless Monty Burns the Obama campaign has depicted in its savaging TV ads.
In a panic-mode press scrum Monday night, Mr. Romney conceded his comments were “not elegantly stated” but raised “a question about the direction of the country: Do you believe in a government-centred society that provides more and more benefits? Or do you believe instead in a free enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams?”
That simplistic formulation of the choice facing voters in this presidential election may appeal to Tea Party supporters and libertarians. But it hardly reflects the opinions of most voters in a country where half of Americans already get their health-care from government, either through Medicare for seniors or Medicaid for the indigent.
Are these the people Mr. Romney was thinking about when he told donors that he will “never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives?”
In the video, Mr. Romney admits he needs to win over moderates who voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 if he has any hope of taking the White House in November. Yet, he all but dismisses them as fools. In another segment of the video posted by Mother Jones on Tuesday, Mr. Romney accused Palestinians of having "no interest" in peace with Israel and being "committed to the destruction and elimination" of that country.
The alacrity with which conservative opinion makers moved to condemn Mr. Romney’s comments suggests that not even his natural allies want to be associated with the sinking ship his candidacy has become.
“Romney’s comments reveal that he has lost any sense of the social compact,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote on Tuesday. “There’s no way the country will trust the Republican Party to reform the welfare state if that party doesn’t have a basic commitment to provide a safety net for those who suffer for no fault of their own.”
Over at the hard right Weekly Standard, editor William Kristol blasted Mr. Romney for showing contempt for millions of Americans who actually intend to vote for him, including seniors on Medicare and low-income earners who favour less government.
“It remains important for the country that Romney wins in November (unless he chooses to step down and we get the Ryan-Rubio ticket we deserve!),” Mr. Kristol wrote. “But that shouldn't blind us to the fact that Romney's comments, like those of Obama four years ago [on white working-class voters who cling to their guns or religion] are arrogant and stupid.
“Indeed, has there been a presidential race in modern times featuring two candidates who have done so little over their lifetimes for our country, and who have so little substance to say about the future of our country?”
Before the video surfaced on Monday, moderate conservatives such as Mr. Brooks had seemed willing to take a chance on Mr. Romney. So had movement conservatives such as Mr. Kristol, who seemed ready to hold their noses, and support a GOP nominee they neither like nor trust, if only to remove Mr. Obama from office.
Now, even conservatives closer to the centre and those farther to the right seem to have given up on Mr. Romney’s candidacy. With seven weeks to go, it may be too early to slap a R.I.P label on it. But so much has gone wrong with Mr. Romney’s campaign, it has become harder to imagine that anything about it can go right.