Mitt Romney had a chance Monday to demonstrate to the American people that he was more than an opportunistic mercenary who would say anything to win the White House. And he failed. Miserably.
Put another way, he blew his chance at a "No, ma'am" moment.
On October 10, 2008, less than a month before the presidential election, and with his standing falling in the polls in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, John McCain fielded a question at a town hall meeting in Minnesota from a woman who said, "I can't trust Obama. I have read about him and he's not, he's not uh -- he's an Arab."
McCain didn't hesitate. He politely but firmly took the microphone from the woman and said, shaking his head, "No, ma'am. No, ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have
disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign's all about."
McCain chose the high road. He wasn't above smearing Barack Obama's character during the campaign. He was also willing to be dishonest about Obama's record and policy positions. But there was a line of basic decency he wouldn't cross. (I am not saying that to be Arab is to be unAmerican, of course. But that generalization was certainly embedded in the statement of the woman at the town hall.)
In the heat of the battle, McCain showed his basic decency with his "No, ma'am" moment.
Romney had his chance Monday to prove his integrity. At a town hall event in Cleveland, a woman, in a question to Romney, said, "We have a president right now that is operating outside the structure of our Constitution," adding, "I do agree he should be tried for treason." How did Romney respond? Did he take this moment to say, "Wait a minute. I don't agree with the president's policies, but he clearly is not trying to overthrow the U.S. government"?
Did Romney have his "No, ma'am" moment?
No. Romney stood in silence while she made the baseless and incendiary accusation, and when she was done, he just answered her question about the balance of powers, talking about how great the Constitution is. In doing so, Romney gave the impression to the crowd that either he was not going to set the woman straight or, worse, that he endorsed the speaker's ridiculous comment. And that's reprehensible.
Yes, I know after the town hall, while greeting supporters, when asked if he agreed that Obama should be tried for treason, he said, "No, of course not." But at that point it was too little, too late. McCain didn't wait to tell reporters after the town hall that Obama wasn't an untrustworthy Arab. He set the record straight, there and then, in front of the audience.
McCain knew the difference between attacking your opponent and accusing him of looking to overthrow the American government. Romney, clearly, sees no such distinction.
We're still six months away from the election, and Romney and his supporters (armed with hundreds of billions of dollars in post-Citizens United super PAC money) will no doubt unleash a fusillade of lies and fear-mongering statements aimed at smearing the president. But what we can now surmise, this early in the campaign, is that Romney, unlike McCain, will make no attempt to set the record straight on the most inflammatory, extreme (and obviously false) statements of his supporters.
That says a lot. It shows that Romney is the say-anything-to-anyone-to-get-elected mercenary so many Americans think he is. Worse, he is the human Etch a Sketch his advisor says he is.
If Romney can't stand up to nutjobs calling the president treasonous, what can he stand up to? Seemingly not anyone or anything that might cost him a vote. And that's the last thing we need from a leader, let alone the president of the United States.
We already knew it was going to be an ugly six months ahead, filled with lies coming from Romney and his supporters. But we now know that when the most inflammatory of the lies are unleashed in Romney's presence, he won't have the integrity to simply say, "No, ma'am."