The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.
It's the moment that every glad-handing, flesh-pressing presidential candidate fears: some loony activist has somehow seized control of the microphone at your folksy town hall event. Aides with clipboards flash into action, signaling to the hired muscle to get ready to take down the intruder. And as the rosy color in your candidate's cheeks begins to drain and his eager smile turns to one of abiding annoyance, everyone girds their loins for the impending awkwardness: "Bring 'em home!" "Baby killer!" "Stop illegal war!" Now while we might agree with the gist of some of these pithy outbursts, this stentorian soap-boxing is not going to start a civilized discussion, and politicians are often rightly dismissive of such stunts. So, imagine my surprise when I fired up the ol' Internet Monday morning to see Governor Mitt Romney giving the same cold shoulder reserved for such boisterous protesters to a frail young man in a wheelchair who suffers from muscular dystrophy.
To earn such a snub, Clayton Holton approached Mr. Romney after one of his "Ask Mitt Anything" town hall events and, apparently not realizing that the event's seemingly all-encompassing moniker came with a Barry Bonds-sized asterisk, calmly posed the following question:
I have support of five of my doctors saying that I'm living proof that medical marijuana works. I am completely against legalizing it for everyone, but there is medical purposes for it. . . . My question for you is, will you arrest me and my doctors if I get medical marijuana prescribed to me?
Visibly annoyed, Romney combatively replied, "I'm not in favor of medical marijuana being legal in this country," after which he segued into his normal round of "nice to see yous," claiming, over protestations, that he had in fact sufficiently answered the question.
A written transcript of the exchange really does not do his callousness justice, but as it has and will continue to do, YouTube dogs Romney. Did he not see the cameras? Of course he did, he was flanked by them on all sides. And it's not as if Romney was surprised by such a question; he has previously been asked about his stance on medical marijuana by Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana (the group to which Mr. Holton belongs) and Send the Right Message! (an arm of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy). Sure, he's given that same response before, but does any presidential candidate really believe they can answer a particular question once and be immune from it henceforth? Regurgitating the same talking points day in and day out is the name of the game.
It's hard to know where to start when dissecting Romney's brazenly uncompassionate performance. Let's start with the obvious. If you're going to call it "Ask Mitt Anything," you should probably be prepared for anything, or at least willing to tolerate a legitimate question. Sure, the candidates jet back and forth from state to state, but Romney might do well to remember where he is on a given day. New Hampshire: "Live Free or Die," libertarian streak, key primary state on which the future of your candidacy may well depend... ring any bells? And I won't even go into the irony of how Romney is courting the compassionate conservative "culture of life" vote, yet dismisses an eighty-pound muscular dystrophy patient whose plea began as follows: "I suffer from an extremely rare type of muscular dystrophy and I have to take medication or I'll die. . . . I have support of five of my doctors saying I'm living proof that medical marijuana works." (emphasis added for maximum irony).
The issue here is not whether medical marijuana has acceptable medical purposes -- although denying that it does has become increasingly indefensible -- but basic human dignity and giving a voice to the underrepresented. Sounds democratic enough. Not to mention that such an "answer" can't be good campaign policy in a state in which every vote counts. Did Romney make a calculated decision that he would win the anti-medical marijuana patient voting bloc by brushing aside Mr. Holton? Does that bloc even exist? From the videos, the mood in the room appeared to turn a deep shade of uncomfortable. And what of the voters to whom Romney next turned his attention? Hardly the way they had envisioned meeting a presidential candidate. One can imagine the conversation among those New Hampshirites afterwards: "I thought I was supposed to feel inspired. Instead, I just feel nauseous." Votes lost.
What Romney has not yet learned, and what Vice President Cheney apparently has, is that in politics you can get away with telling certain people to "go fuck themselves," while there are others whom you cannot. Conservatives lionized Cheney after that outburst at Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor, reveling in his verbalization of their innermost thoughts. But tucked away in the political bible somewhere, there's a list of people who are simply off limits from such invectives: babies, the elderly, veterans, expectant mothers, the terminally ill, the wheelchair-bound, and pretty much anyone else in a key primary or swing state. Romney would do well to memorize that list. President Bush apparently didn't get that memo either when he vetoed the recent SCHIP bill, and House and Senate Republicans may pay for that implicit middle finger next November. Perhaps Romney is more like Bush than he's led us to believe. And as long as he's taking cues from the President -- and if he wants to avoid another cold-hearted confrontation with a sympathetic voter -- perhaps he should take another: audiences of hand-picked loyalists who can comfortably Ask Mitt Anything*.
* Offer not valid in New Hampshire.
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