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Nominating Mitt Malaprop
Romney has the GOP nomination wrapped up — but his serial verbal miscues will haunt him in November
Robert Shrum
Robert Shrum
T

he Donald has spoken. He knows a done deal when he sees one.

After Florida, Mitt is the Republican nominee. And the morning after, to the relief of Democrats and the distress of the conservative commentariat, he proved again that he is the gaffe machine that keeps on giving.

First, the state of the race: Romney is ahead of Barack Obama's pace in 2008. It was Super Tuesday then, still a month from now, when I argued that the Democratic contest was all over except for the noise, the ritual combat, and the counting, given that party rules made it impossible in fact if not in theory for Hillary Clinton to catch up. Obama had a lead, and proportional representation would protect it, awarding him almost as many delegates as her even in the primaries he lost. 

The GOP has a time-limited form of proportional representation — although Florida, which went earlier than it was supposed to, handed all 50 of its delegates to Romney on a winner-take-all basis. But it will be schedule and resources which more than anything else make the chances of stopping Romney less than zero.

For other candidates, the verbal miscue is an episode; for Romney, it's an epidemic.

Gingrich's path forward heads straight into Romney firewalls, but Newt can survive the unfriendly month of February if he doesn't run out of money. He could conceivably achieve something unprecedented in presidential politics, a third resurrection, in the March Super Tuesday showdown in the South and Texas. (Maybe he can find another Juan Williams on whom to land a racially charged punch.) But then, in a single big state primary, Pennsylvania early on or ultimately California, Romney, his super PAC, and the GOP establishment will dump tens of millions of dollars of dirt and relentless invective on an underfunded, undisciplined, unorganized Newt. This is what doomed him in Iowa and Florida. It was what the Romney enterprise and its fellow travelers didn't do in South Carolina; they won't make that mistake again. 

There's another factor that's fast propelling a frontrunner who won only two of the first four contests. A bedeviled religious right and movement conservatives have conspicuously failed to unite behind one candidate. In 2012, the dividing wedge is Gingrich's private life, which drives unforgiving true-believers to the hopeless Rick Santorum. Things might have been different if Rick Perry hadn't been so irredeemably, indelibly hapless after he entered the race and shot into the lead. But historically, from 1988 to 2008, the far right's impotence in the GOP presidential process has been a hardy perennial. They can dictate the platform, but they don't pick the nominee.

So it's Romney in 2012, despite glaring weaknesses revealed in the primaries, from his animatronic awkwardness to his plutocratic profile. The latter has been a product not just of attacks from his opponents — and the attacks will be unremitting in the general election — but of gaffes that are in reality self-revelations of his actual character and conviction. When he slips the confines of his canned answers, when an off-message moment or question deflects him from toeing his adviser's carefully formulated tropes, he tends to shift from Ken Doll to Gordon Gekko. 

He did it again, fouling up in an interview the morning after his Florida triumph by blurting out: "I'm not concerned with the very poor." Pressed by CNN's Soledad O'Brien he added: "We will hear from the Democrat party, it's hard to be poor." Yes, it is — and yes, "the Democrat party" is a preferred and silly pejorative in the Republican lexicon. But this time it was Republicans who were upset. Romney's explanation — that the poor have a social safety net that he will simply patch as needed — riled conservatives because it flouted their enmity for the safety net and because it raised new worries about Romney's basis political skills. "What is wrong with this guy?" asked Mark Steyn at National Review.

The interview was instant water cooler conversation. Romney's misspoken words reached far more people than any pre-sculpted line in his Florida victory speech the night before. And Americans aren't likely to recoil from his fallback reference to social programs, but from his emerging self-portrait as a privileged, remote, self-satisfied cold fish. 

All presidential candidates, even the best, verbally stumble. Dwight Eisenhower gave such a poor performance at the 1952 American Legion convention, a natural audience for him if there ever was one, that the Scripps-Howard newspapers, virtually a GOP campaign organ that year, complained: "Ike is running like a dry creek." John Kennedy had to fend off the allegation that he'd recommended apologizing to Nikita Kruschev when an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory; he defensively parsed that he had only said the U.S. should express its "regrets." The Great Communicator himself so stuck to his script that when a reporter complained that he had said nothing new in months, the Reagan campaign manager replied: "I certainly hope he hasn't." As the journalist Elizabeth Drew observed, "They're not trying to protect Reagan from the press; they're trying to protect him from himself." 

That's surely been tried, but hasn't worked with Romney. For other candidates, the verbal miscue is an episode; for him, it's an epidemic — offering $10,000 bets, saying foreclosures should run their course, claiming he feared getting a pink slip, explaining that $400,000 isn't much money, announcing that he likes to fire people. (And at that, Romney has had a lot of practice.) He blithered about releasing his tax returns, then released only two years — and will face intensifying scrutiny about off-shore tax havens and whether he paid any tax, or almost none, in years we haven't seen, like 2008 and 2009.

Romney's problem isn't his wealth. In the depths of the Great Depression, Americans turned to the patrician FDR, who was seen as a champion, as he put it, of "the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid." So it was in 1960 with John Kennedy who told his speechwriter Richard Goodwin that people in West Virginia might be prejudiced; but he'd been into the coal mines and through the impoverished rural hollows — and if he had the chance, he was going to do everything he could to help them. West Virginians sensed this in Kennedy as he campaigned among them, and against all the predictions, voted for him despite his Catholicism — and thus sealed his nomination. 

George W. Bush understood the challenge in 2000. He proudly proclaimed a "compassionate conservatism" — which would be anathema in today's GOP — and he spoke of his concern for the waitress struggling to get by on $22,000 a year. What mattered politically wasn't his sincerity, but his image. 

Today Romney not only looks like the face of the Republican establishment; by his own words and deeds, he has become the face of unfairness in America, a profile in numbness and indifference. 

His consultants will program his answers on Bain and taxes — where he may be in an unnavigable bind if he paid little or nothing in earlier years. Then he will have to stonewall, reinforcing suspicions about him. His campaign, like Reagan's, will try to protect him from himself. But the unexpected and unprepared for will come — and unlike Reagan, Romney is not a great figure and, to put it mildly, he lacks a common touch. 

Mitt Romney has all but arrived at the nomination — and at a perilous place in American politics. He's on the verge of simply not being liked. The tongue lashings he's already inflicted on his persona won't be easily erased — and on the evidence, he'll do it again. 

Come to think of it, he just did: The Trump endorsement richly amplifies the narrative, and yes, the truth that he's out of touch. What will Mitt Malaprop say next? Stay tuned. 

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