NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- When Mitt Romney went before a group of conservative activists on Friday, he attempted to tell them of the lessons he learned and the stories he heard during his failed presidential campaign. But the way he characterized some of those stories indicated that he may still not have absorbed exactly why he lost to President Barack Obama.
"Our nation is full of aspirations and hungry for new solutions," said Romney at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is the largest annual gathering of conservative activists. "We're a nation of invention and reinventing. My optimism about America wasn't diminished by my campaign. In fact, it grew. It grew as I saw the people of America and heard their stories."
Romney talked about entrepreneurs, religious leaders and members of the armed forces as examples of America's greatness. He then praised "heroes in the homes of the nation."
"Single moms who are working two jobs so their kids can have the same kind of [things] other kids at school have. Dads who don't know what a weekend is because they've taken on so many jobs to make sure they can keep the house," said Romney. "We're a patriotic people. The heart of America is good."
Most Americans like the ones Romney described likely aren't working multiple jobs out of patriotism; they're trying to make ends meet at a time when average wages are plunging even as overall productivity goes up.
Romney's remark didn't raise many eyebrows among the overwhelmingly conservative audience on Friday. But it's reminiscent of what is considered one of former President George W. Bush's most famous gaffes, one that underscored for many why his administration seemed out of touch with ordinary working Americans -- a criticism that Romney has certainly heard before.
At a town hall meeting in Omaha, Neb., on Feb. 5, 2005, a self-described "divorced, single mother with three grown, adult children" -- including one who was mentally disabled -- told Bush she was concerned about entitlement reform. The exchange then turned to the woman's heavy schedule (listen here):
THE PRESIDENT: And so thank you for asking that. You don't have to worry.
MS. MORNIN: That's good, because I work three jobs and I feel like I contribute.
THE PRESIDENT: You work three jobs?
MS. MORNIN: Three jobs, yes.
THE PRESIDENT: Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)
MS. MORNIN: Not much. Not much.
On Feb. 12, the Dallas Morning News wrote that Bush's comments reminded the paper of "'Stakhanovite' [which] is a Soviet-era term of praise for workers who went above and beyond the duty fulfilling their quotas in service to the socialist motherland -- which is to say, they worked themselves to the bone."
Romney was never able to escape the image of being a billionaire unable to empathize with the majority of Americans -- from talking about his friends who own sports teams to the "couple of Cadillacs" his wife owns.
At the same time, Romney said during the campaign that he opposed an increase in the minimum wage, even though at $7.25 an hour it remains far below inflation. Congress has voted to raise the minimum wage just three times in the past three years; if it had kept pace with inflation, it would be $10.59 an hour.
Even one of Romney's central qualifications for running for president -- the business experience he gained at the private equity firm Bain Capital -- furthered the impression he was disconnected from working-class Americans, with its record of supporting companies that moved jobs overseas.
Overall, Romney's speech on Friday seemed to strike a more moderate tone than his comments immediately after the election, when he said Obama won because he gave "gifts" to black, Hispanic and young voters.