There's a pattern emerging to Mitt Romney's worst gaffes: his biggest political missteps come whenever he repeats something the conservative opinion complex has already repeated endlessly. Instead of being the candidate that conservative bloggers feared as a moderate, he's been exactly the candidate they wanted. And he's losing. The most recent example, of course, is Romney's comment to donors that 47 percent of Americans are voting for President Obama because they're getting a government handout -- which has been a meme on conservative blogs for months. In November 2011, RedState editor Erick Erickson, who is the creator of that meme, wrote a widely-noted post titled "Mitt Romney as the Nominee: Conservatism Dies and Barack Obama Wins." He predicted Romney's candidacy would be "an utter disaster for conservatives" because Romney was "a guy who keeps selling out the very principles conservatives claim to hold dear" and who won't "seriously take conservatives seriously." If the polls don't change in the next 49 days, Erickson will have been only half right. Obama will have won, but not because Romney ran as a moderate. It will be in part because he adopted conservative bloggers' memes as critical parts of his campaign message. Here are four examples:
The 53 Percent
Erickson started a tumblr last year in response to Occupy Wall Street titled "We Are the 53%." As The Atlantic's Molly Ball points out, the first post was a photo of himself holding a note: "I work 3 jobs. I have a house I can't sell. My family insurance costs are outrageous. But I don't blame Wall Street." (Poor old Erickson has multiple punditry gigs.) The meme spread to Tea Partyish politicians. By the spring, the 53/47 divide had become such a widely used talking point that it was already producing gaffes. On May 10, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow mocked Richard Mourdock, who had just defeated "RINO" Sen. Dick Lugar in the Republican Senate primary, for comparing the 53/47 divide to the nation before the civil war. "When 47 percent are paying no income taxes -- they do pay Social Security -- but they are not paying income taxes, and 53 percent are carrying the load, we are a house divided," Mourdock concluded.
Romney was just sewing up the Republican nomination, with Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul, all bowing out in the first two weeks of May, but the defeat of an old stalwart like Lugar by a Tea Partier like Mourdock was filling conservative commentary about the future of the political party. It would be hard to imagine that Romney hadn't noticed. The night after Herman Cain finally endorsed Romney, with Michele Bachmann by his side, the presumptive nominee was in Boca Raton, Florida, at a fundraiser. That's where he brought out the old saw about the 47 percent, added that they were all Obama voters, and said, "My job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." Even now, conservative blogs are loving the sentiment it. The National Review's Jim Geraghty writes today:
Folks in the media are asking, "how could he say this?" Folks on the Right, who see a growing dependency mentality sucking away the nation’s drive, work ethic and independence, are asking, "how could he say this only behind closed doors?"
Well, because first of all, it's false. The 47 percent are not uniformly Democrats or Obama voters. More important, the 47 percent are not welfare queens -- people "dependent upon government," in Romney's words, "who believe that they are victims." Of the 47 percent who didn't pay income tax in 2009, more than 60 percent of them paid payroll taxes, because they had a job. 22 percent of them were old people. 190,000 of them were soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq that year. But the clearest fact is that conservatives are watching their candidate get declared unfit for office because of something they've been saying for months.
Romney has framed his foreign policy critique of Obama around a conservative meme, that Obama went on an "apology tour" around the world, saying he was sorry how much America sucks. This is never happened. But as New York's Jonathan Chait explained last week, it has been a persistent meme in conservative circles, particularly after Karl Rove wrote a Wall Street Journal column headlined "The President's Apology Tour" in April 2009. (Obama had been in office for less than 100 days.) Over three years later, the "apology tour" was the reference point for Romney's quick and widely-criticized response to news that protests outside American embassies had led to the death of a State Department worker, later revealed to be U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. (The death count eventually hit four.) Romney issued a statement saying:
"I’m outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi. It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."
The next day he held a press conference to say he was standing by his remarks. Conservative blogs cheered -- "Romney is right" was the headline at both The Weekly Standard and The National Review. But in the mainstream media, and among some Republican leaders, the comments backfired, making Romney look ill-equipped to act "presidential" during a crisis. More important, they backfired among non-pundits. A Pew Research Center poll found that of those who followed the news, 48 percent disapproved of Romney's comments, and just 26 percent approved. By contrast. 45 percent approved of Obama's handing of the situation, and 36 percent disapproved.
In a Republican primary debate in January, Romney said one way he'd deal with illegal immigration would be to get immigrants to "self-deport." That's the idea that states should make the lives of illegal immigrants so miserable that they just go home, and is the foundation of immigration laws in several states. Alabama, as This American Life explained, has made it illegal to help anyone who might be an illegal immigrant -- even religious charities, even soup kitchens. That the idea began in 1994 with two Mexican-American satirists in response to California's Proposition 187 ballot initiative does not seem to bother proponents of the policy. Harsh immigration laws are something the Republican base wants -- Romney tried to defeat Rick Perry in the primary by attacking the Texan's support for a state-level Dream Act before Perry defeated himself.
Self-deportation might be a popular concept in Alabama, where just 4 percent of the population is Hispanic. But there are a lot more Hispanics in states that will actually decide the election. In June, Latino Decisions released a survey finding that among Hispanic registered voters in five swing states, 10 percent said Romney's self-deportation comments made them more enthusiastic about him, while 59 percent said the comments made them less enthusiastic about him. Cristina Saralegui, the "Hispanic Oprah," mocked the idea with air quotes in her Democratic National Convention speech.
On Monday, Latino Decisions' poll showed Romney is losing among Hispanic women by 53 percentage points -- getting 21 percent of their support to Obama's 74 percent. Among Hispanic men, Romney is doing better, getting 32 percent of their support to Obama's 61 percent, a 29-point gap.
The charge that Obama gutted welfare reform -- the administration changed the work requirement rules to allow states to apply for waivers if they could show alternate programs placed people in jobs -- was first promoted on conservative sites. "Obama Guts Welfare Reform," the Heritage Foundation wrote July 12, in a post that was widely picked up. Then House Speaker John Boehner, and several other Republican lawmakers, issued a statement condemning the waiver. The Daily Caller picked up the story. "Farewell to Welfare Reform," the National Review wrote July 16. The American Enterprise Institute added charts showing growing dependency on July 25. The waiver "gutted the welfare reform law of 1996," the Weekly Standard said in its July 30 issue. After conservative blogs stewed over this, Romney made it part of his campaign speech. His first ad on the issue was posted on YouTube August 7. He made several ads about the claim, which fact-checkers and newspapers nearly universally pointed out was false. After a ton of negative mainstream press, neither Romney nor running mate Paul Ryan mentioned welfare in their speeches at the Republican National Convention. The collateral damage from embracing this particular right-wing talking point wasn't so much losing the welfare debate — the charge, if factually wrong, is quite effective with white working class voters — but it did give rise to one of the stickiest memes of the general election: that the Romney-Ryan campaign does not stick to the facts. That especially stuck after Romney's pollster Neil Newhouse was quoted at the Republican National Convention as saying, "We’re not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
There are tons of left-wing talking points espoused on blogs and cable that would be politically toxic if a candidate were caught saying them on tape. That was just what happened in 2008, when Obama referenced the liberal idea, laid out in What's the Matter with Kansas?, that voters who would benefit from Democratic economic policies vote Republican on social issues because Democrats had abandoned them during the Clinton administration. He was taped at a fundraiser saying, "it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion" and a punditry firestorm ensued. But Obama didn't then turnaround and make the focus of his campaign whatever DailyKos was mad about that week. We've yet to see some secretly-recorded footage of Obama telling lefty-blog-reading donors that his first priority, should he be reelected, is prosecuting Bush administration officials for war crimes. Somehow, Romney manages to keep getting burned the same way.