Mitt Romney has worked tirelessly to portray himself as a study in pragmatic campaigning. More than any of his rivals for the Republican nomination, he has managed to steer away from some of the offensive, racially-tinged language that has made the party such a bitter pill for African-American voters to swallow. He has been nothing if not measured.
But his latest pronouncement, right at the outset of the New Hampshire primary, is not helping his long-term political prospects nor is it helping to create any inroads he might have hoped to make among the nation’s Black voters.
In that last day of pre-primary campaigning in New Hampshire, Romney made a comment about health insurance companies that could become one of the defining moments of the 2012 campaign.
Romney said he wanted every American to be able to own his or her own policy “and perhaps keep it the rest of their life.” He continued: “That means the insurance company will have the incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don't like what they do, you can fire them.”
Then came the humdinger: “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” Romney added. “If someone doesn't give me the good service I need, I want to say I am going to get somebody else to provide that service to me.”
In another appearance, Romney attempted to establish his credentials as the everyman who understands the sting of an ailing economy, telling an audience that he, too, has feared getting “a pink slip.”
To the average American, the statements of Romney, the millionaire son of a wealthy executive and onetime governor of Michigan, seem utterly tone deaf given the state of the nation’s economy. To Black America, which is struggling with double-digit unemployment and staggering joblessness among its youth, Romney’s comments seem somewhere between insensitive and horrifying.
After all, Romney is the candidate whose credentials as a wealthy businessman included being a buyer of failing companies. In his days at Bain Capital, Romney supervised the elimination of components of those companies that were considered inefficient — in large measure that meant workers.
While many of the news commentators and pundits describe Romney’s comments as a gaffe, for working-class voters — particularly African Americans — it is more a symbol, a telling peek behind the campaign’s carefully orchestrated veneer. For Black workers who have long suffered as the last hired, first fired, Romney’s statements seem not just hollow, but condescendingly insincere.
As much as Romney seeks to offer an image of empathy with workers who feel that they are under siege by the country’s economic ills, the former Massachusetts governor appears to have no real understanding of what Americans are undergoing.
Meanwhile, the so-called gaffe has made for great entertainment among the Republican field. Rick Perry, in one of the more coherent pronouncements in his candidacy, blasted Romney. “I have no doubt Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips,” Perry quipped, adding, “I’m sure he was worried that he would run out of pink slips.”
Romney has sought diligently to recover in the aftermath of the firestorm his words created. But the problem is that his comments represent the latest example of his inability to acknowledge who he really is at his core.
Why attempt to restructure his personal history with claims of being a worker living in the margins of the economy and under the fear of layoff? In the end, that inability to simply be himself — whether in portraying his history or in refashioning his positions on nearly every major issue of public policy — is what will in the end draw the attention of the American voter of every hue, with no shortage of skepticism.
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