There's a debate over whether Mitt Romney's slip of the tongue Wednesday -- "I'm not concerned about the very poor," which doesn't sound great even in context -- is evidence of his authenticity or his inauthenticity. On one side are people who say Romney's gaffes, surprisingly frequent for such a disciplined campaigner, show he's not a super slick politician who runs every sentence past a focus group before saying it in public. For them, the "poor" comment sounds sinister, but is actually benign. On the other side are those who see Romney's slip as evidence that he hasn't bothered to learn what it means to be a conservative, meaning while his "poor" comment sounds like an inconsequential slip, it really indicates an unsettling lack of conviction. It's like a scene from Breakfast at Tiffany's, when Holly Golightly's agent and pursuer gossip about her persona:
"Answer the question: Is she or isn't she?"
"I don't know. I don't think so."
"You don't, huh? Well, you're wrong. She is. But on the other hand, you're right. Because she's a real phony. She honestly believes all this phony junk."
The case for Romney's stumbling realness:
National Review's Jason Lee Steorts writes that the "poor" gaffe "is the essence of authenticity: The problem, politically speaking, is precisely that he failed to calculate about how his remark would be received." All Romney's rich guy gaffes prove the same, he writes, especially the authentic "naked ambition" of saying he couldn't hire illegal immigrants because he was running for office. We all know our politicians are phonies, Steorts writes, but what we want "is a believable sort of fakery." His colleague Jonah Goldberg is troubled that Romney says these things when he's relaxed, "into his groove." His shortcomings as a politician "can be reassuring to some, who take it as proof he’s not another politician. The problem, for others at least, is that because he isn’t a natural politician he breaks the language where it needs to bend."
New York's Jonathan Chait, who often writes about Romney's struggle to project sincerity, finds Romney's authentic inauthenticity "charming" -- "it is a relief that Romney does not believe the nonsense he spouts during the campaign." But Chait is liberal. It's not a relief at all to some conservatives.
The case for Romney's appalling fakery:
Sure, the "poor" thing was tone deaf, The Weekly Standard's John McCormack writes. But worse, "it's also un-conservative." He continues: "The standard conservative argument is that a conservative economic agenda will help everyone... To be anti-debt is to be anti-poverty... Had Mitt Romney picked up his conservatism sooner, perhaps he would know these arguments by heart." Likewise, on Fox News, Charles Krauthammer said Romney's comment shows "he doesn't have a fluency" in the ideology he wants to represent. "The moral case for conservative economics is that our policies are going to help everybody, including the poor," Krauthammer said. "The idea that somehow we consign the poor to the safety net or we patch it and dependency is a liberal idea. It's not our idea.... And Romney is a guy who came late to his new ideology, and he still can't speak it very well."
The Hill's Christian Heinze captured Krauthammer's comments:
Unfortunately for Romney, being a real phony in the Holly Golightly sense is the one thing he's not being accused of. No one is arguing that Romney "honestly believes all this phony junk," or finds him utterly charming because of it.