After many gaffes, debates are Romney's last stand

Can the GOP candidate recover from the release of a video in which he tells wealthy donors that Americans who pay no income tax are victims living off the government?

By The Fiscal Times Sep 20, 2012 8:51AM

The Fiscal Times logoBy Josh Boak and Eric Pianin

At a time when Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney needs to be closing the narrow gap in the polls with President Barack Obama, his gaffes over the past two weeks have only compounded the problem and risk putting the presidency out of reach. It will take a dramatic and swift turnaround -- one his campaign promises will begin Monday -- to shift the momentum in the Republican's favor.

A weekend report in Politico about discord among Romney's top campaign aides, and the subsequent surfacing of a video of Romney telling wealthy donors last May that the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax are victims living off government support, add up to a devastating picture of the would-be president less than 50 days before the election. Romney had planned to revitalize his campaign and shift the focus back to the economy this week after the embarrassing debacle stemming from his ham-handed attacks over how the administration has managed unrest in the Middle East.

These revelations underscore some of the worst criticism raised by Democrats and Republicans alike about his core beliefs and skills as a politician and government leader, making it increasingly hard to overturn the sense in the zeitgeist that Romney, as portrayed last weekend by "Saturday Night Live," might as well be Obama's secret weapon.

Romney defended his remarks, captured by a hidden video camera and released by the grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, as largely pertaining to campaign strategy. "We were, of course, talking about a campaign and how he's going to get close to half the vote, I'm going to get half the vote, approximately, I hope," he told Fox News in an interview that aired Tuesday, adding, "I want to get 50.1 percent or more."

His team has scrambled with damage control, denying any discord in the campaign, writing off his comments at the May fundraiser as inartful, and loudly insisting the former Massachusetts governor remains on track to win in November. But almost nothing they say has diminished these three troubling political realities:

  • Romney has bumped up against a glass ceiling in the polls. Romney has trailed Obama since October 2011, according to the average of head-to-head polls by RealClearPolitics. Among the seven decisive battleground states, Romney currently leads in just one: North Carolina.
  • Success in business does not always translate into success in politics. Romney vowed to run the government the way a CEO would run a Fortune 500 company, but his own corporate-style campaign organization has stumbled badly, especially in the planning of the national convention and Romney's acceptance speech. Senior strategist Stuart Stevens has alienated many members of the campaign's  Boston brain trust, and the long knives are out for him.
  • Romney is stuck in the worst of all possible worlds -- saddled with the label of either Gordon Gekko or Panderer-in-Chief.   If he spoke from the heart in his surreptitiously recorded comments to backers in Boca Raton, Fla.,  while he was still locking up the GOP nomination, then he probably is the disdainful capitalist who once callously said he wasn't concerned about the very poor because they had a social safety net to protect them. Or, if he was simply imprecise and his statements don't reflect his philosophy, as he explained to reporters Monday evening, then he opens himself to being a shameless chameleon eager to curry favor with the GOP base any way he can. Neither label is positive.

All of this adds to the pressure Romney faces with three presidential debates in October and the blitz of campaign advertising in the run-up to the election. Even before the release of the video, a spate of polls show Romney's support has suffered because voters already view him as a stilted and unsympathetic patrician. Despite his public speeches, interviews and ads, he has not convinced the majority of the country that he truly cares about the middle class. Texas Gov. Rick Perry and other GOP rivals during the primary season charged that Romney engaged in "vulture capitalism" that led to the destruction or outsourcing of many middle-class factory and manufacturing jobs.

Obama leads Romney 56 percent to 37 percent on the question of who would do more to help the middle class, a split that has held relatively steady for the past three months based on a survey released last week by The New York Times/CBS News. The same poll shows that most voters think the president understands their problems and tells them what he genuinely believes, while less than half of those surveyed view Romney as similarly empathetic and sincere.

Perhaps most devastating, more than 53 percent of respondents have said since February that Romney's policies favor the rich. Other surveys by Monmouth University and Fox News show his favorability remains just below the critical 50 percent threshold.

No doubt those numbers were driven by TV ads attacking Romney's record as the head of the private equity firm Bain Capital during the primary and general election season, in addition to the Obama team hammering him over the decision to not release any tax returns before 2010. Some Romney campaign aides have complained off the record to reporters that the campaign should have responded with ads of their own to minimize the damage.

But now those numbers will likely become worse after Romney claimed in the leaked video that his "job" is not to "worry" about those who pay no federal income tax, since "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." For a candidate whose own effective tax rate is lower than many Americans at 13.9 percent, his words only chummed the waters.

Ari Fleisher, the former press secretary for President George W. Bush, noted on Twitter that Romney had basically slammed the core of the middle class -- whose tax burden was reduced in part through the lower rates and deductions introduced by his boss in 2001 -- that the candidate must win-over.

"A family of 4 making $50k can pay no inc. tax thanks 2deductions/credits," Fleisher quickly tweeted after the video was released. "It's not just the poor & seniors."

The video obtained and published by the liberal outlet MotherJones on Monday also undermines a key selling point for Romney -- that he's a data-driven numbers cruncher who can work his magic on the federal government.

Throughout his talk, he repeatedly misrepresents important stats, claiming, for example, that half of new college graduates cannot find work. The actual unemployment rate for all Americans between the ages of 16 to 24, regardless of education level, is 17.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

While Romney can claim that roughly 47 percent of the country doesn't pay income taxes, "even this statistic is misleading because it counts older households, who are often retirees, and young individuals, even if they are still in school," the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project concluded in a report last April.

Rather than ideology or even politics, it's changing demographics and the 2008 recession that explain the composition of the income tax burden. "As the U.S. population ages into the future and a greater proportion of Americans reach the retirement age, it is inevitable that a growing percentage of the overall population will pay no income or payroll taxes," the Hamilton Project report concludes.

One of the more baffling aspects of the Romney campaign is the amount of disarray and internal backbiting that usually becomes public very early in the campaign season or  after the election. According to the Politico article, Romney, an executive obsessed with tables of organization and PowerPoint presentations, created a team with few lines of authority or accountability and seven distinct power centers tugging against one another.

As mishaps have piled up, Stuart Stevens, a veteran GOP campaign and media strategist, has taken the brunt of the blame for the unwieldy structure. A joke among frustrated Republicans is that the Romney campaign badly needs a consultant from Bain & Co. to strengthen it. Coupled with the video, the campaign squabbling has prevented Romney from having the conversation he would prefer to have with the country.

"This is ultimately a question about direction for the country," he said while defending his statements in the video. "Do you believe in a government-centered 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?"

Josh Boak is a national correspondent at The Fiscal Times. Subscribe to The Fiscal Times' free newsletter.

More from The Fiscal Times

Sep 25, 2012 10:24AM
It absolutely amazes me how people get on these sites and talk about Iraq and Afghanistan dead and injured and just blow past and shrug off the fact that almost 3,000 innocent people were killed on 9/11. Do you realize that if the guy that flew the Pentagon plane was a better aim and the other plane didn't go down in Shanksville it would have been much more than that. You people pis- me off. What are we supposed to say---Oh, golly gee, I'm sorry we made you do that?? You raise the ante. You make them understand that when you do that sh-t to us you have a price to pay. If you serve in our armed forces, and I did, you realize that that's the risk you take. Roughly, "I will protect and defend the constitution of the US against all enemies foreign and domestic----I will obey the orders of the President of the US and officers appointed over me". There's no we'll think about it in it. No maybe when I feel like it. If the President says go---you do it. It's the risk you run when you put on the uniform. There's no civilian specialty for Combat Arms. The Army Infantry and the Marine Corp. know that. This is what you train for and this is what you do. If you think we'll let 3,000 dead just slide by and fade away----I'm not the one you want to talk to.
Sep 24, 2012 10:51PM

waraksas sees no difference in going into Iraq and going into Libya.   This explains everything about him.  Maybe one of the 5000 families who lost a member of their family in Iraq can tell you the difference.  Or maybe one of the over 100000 injured American service men and women could tell you the difference between Iraq and Libya.  We did not lose any soldiers in Libya, none.

You obviously know nothing of what went on behind the scenes in the Iranian hostage crisis.  Read a book.  Oh, and ask Bin Laden if he is afraid of Obama. 

Sep 24, 2012 9:43PM
In Nov., 1979, Iran took 52 Americans hostage and held them  until Reagan was inaugurated. On Jan. 20th, 1981 within minutes (literally) after Reagan took his oath of office they freed them. You can't negotiate from a position of weakness. They sensed weakness in Carter and feared Reagan. The middle eastern nations have no fear of Obama. He was raised as a Muslim and whether he practices it remains to be seen.  I always felt we'd back Israel pretty much no matter what. With this guy, I don't know? If we abandon Israel, we'll pay a heavy price for it. Domestically and abroad. Our allies will know that we can abandon them the same way. The UN/US  went into Libya after Kaddafi  for a lot less than what Syria is doing. Syria says bring it on. Iran says bring it on. We know now Al Qaeda still exists and Bush was right. Bin Laden was just 1 man and his death didn't end it all. I see no difference between going into Iraq and getting Saddam and getting Kaddafi in Libya. If Saddam was none of our business, Kaddafi wasn't either. American policy is what it is and you can't pick when and where to use it.
Sep 24, 2012 4:54PM

Hey...wait a minute, what the heck about Obama's comments about the rural PA. voters (their guns & bibles), and Obama's personal war in Libya and the death of our Ambassador who was dragged through the streets while still alive, and Obama's involvement in the "Fast & Furious" disaster, and Obama's 20+ year relationship with the Rev. Wright, Bill Ayers and Berndette Dourne, and Obama's "stimulus" kickbacks to the unions and his big campaign contributors, and Obama's stipulation that his family is exempt from Obamacare, and Obama's mysterious educational records that have never been revealed, and Obama's traitorous involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood, his despicable treatment of Israel, his insistence to give terrorists the same legal rights as citizens, his refusal to enforcement our immigration laws and on and on and on and on.....but the disgraceful liberal media outlets like MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, N.Y. Times, etc. make hay of Romney's comments.  It's bs at the highest level and serves only to deflect attention from Obama's dismal performance as president.  My immigrant father would be so ashamed of what has happened in this country.  Obama is just another Chicago THUG & a LIAR!  Yes, 45+% of us are on food stamps.  Go to Wal-Mart and see these people with $100 tattoos using food stamps. Vote for Obama and you will get what you deserve.  He is an evil wolf in sheep's clothing.

Sep 24, 2012 4:49PM

Let's face it..... This country isn't ready to do anything. Democrat or Republican. the average american doesn't have a clue about politics. Facts and numbers? Debt and Defecit? nothing! But somehow every 4 years we somehow become political knowitalls. We rant and rave about candidates you only know about through cable t.v. or the internet. All of a sudden every idiot has something non productive to say and can't wait to weigh in. A broken political system maybe the reason every election cycle gets so out of hand. Throw in a "black" president a tea party and ulta libral + far right talking points and we have a presidental election clusterfuk. it's still true, many whites still can't stand minorites nothing new their. Republicans hate Democrats and vice versa. The congress in both bodies are crap and absolutely nuthing is going to change ever. Dems or Reps. both will get nothing done and neither have "all" the answers not even 10% of the answers. We bullshyt about other people's opinions instead of finding solutions.

Sep 24, 2012 3:29PM


I think perhaps you have issues, you certainly have a vivid imagination.

 You think GWB gave up on Bin Laden, then along comes BO and assembles a team of crack commandos who track him down and take him out? You think anyone could ever get an 80% approval rating as President in a country as polarized as ours? And you think the only thing holding back that approval rating is the notion that so much of the country hungers for an all white president instead of the half/half race president we've got?

Dude - you've got issues -seek help.

Sep 24, 2012 3:20PM
JEEP1865, Obama is a wimp. Our Libyan embassy is overran, 4 people died, and he apologizes to our attackers; then, he spends $70,000 on ads telling the Pakistanis that we didn't run the ad and don't agree with what it says. OH, we're so sorry. Rather than ask the people who have gotten jobs over the last 30 months, ask the 23 million who didn't or are underemployed after 4 years of his watch. In 2008, he said he'd get it straightened out in 1 4 year term---opps! He said he'd cut the deficit in 1/2 in one 4 year term----opps! Now, he's saying that if he can't----no one can------BS!  He said----do my stimulus and unemployment won't go over 8%----opps! Obamanites are like cultists----blindly following a man who has done so little praying that he can do something better. I'm not sure he's remotely capable of better? 
Sep 23, 2012 1:50PM
If you're against the idea of democracy, then you are against yourself having a voice in government.

Why vote if you don't think you, yourself or "we the people" should have that right.
Sep 22, 2012 4:03PM


You are probably right - Mr. Obama will get re-elected, it's a shame. Concerning Bin Laden - I don't believe ANYONE who held the post of US President would not have taken him out once we knew his location. Concerning the market - well you should be VERY AFRAID there. The market will continue to go up as long as the government THIS ADMINISTRATION keeps on de-valueing our currency. It is not in yours and mine best interest to have a whole bunch of valueless dollars though. With runaway inflation - nobody with a million dollars is going to be happy - much less this middle class he is so concerned about protecting. You don't want to see 1980 all over again, but I fear it's a comin'

Sep 22, 2012 1:01AM

What disgusts me  most (almost) about BO is the  lame a-s excuses and stories he and his people cook up and put out and people believe that garbage. It amazes me how gullible people are? This guy says eat you know what and you guys get a fork. For days, they claim the middle east uprisings were spontaneous. Finally when confronted with irrefutable facts, he says OK they were planned. Now, he and Hillary are on the tube telling those people we didn't make the film and we don't like what it said. A film did all of this? Might be pent up anger looking for a cause? These people who attacked the Libyan  embassy attacked the "safe house" at the same time. That looks coordinated to me. It looks like their intent was the Ambassador and/or his staff and they went straight to it. BO's economic policies have failed and his foreign policy just went down the tube with it. When will people see the light?

Sep 21, 2012 3:00PM

You forgot the millstone the rest of his party and voters have been.   Over the usual droves of anti-gay comments we get a guy proclaiming magic conception in case of rape and another haning a chair in lieu of Obama.  Great way to win the women and black votes.  He isn't winning many points on foreign policy given recent turmoil.


The debates are his last hope at this point, and if he goes in with the same bogus numbers he's screwed.  He won't be debating the empty chair that can't fight back.

Sep 20, 2012 11:37PM
Ah, the Grey Ghost, typing on the computer in the nursing home alzheimers ward. Good evening sir! Try not to drool so much on the keyboard this time . It looks like you skipped your medication again. Not a good idea.
Sep 20, 2012 10:27PM










Sep 20, 2012 9:34PM
If the mutt media has anything to do with it, I'm sure Mitt will lose. What a shame, it takes the low life's at the lame street media spewing their lies to skew the election, but it still takes a brain dead democrat to believe it. Sixteen trillion dollar debt today, what would it be in four years. At least, finally the mutts on the left will hit the same bottom the rest of us will find, I'm sure it will still be Bush's fault. If oboma wins, I hope the maggot libs choke on him.
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