So, it's come to this. Today, a spokeswoman for Mitt Romney responded to an attack ad disseminated by a super PAC supporting President Barack Obama. The ad was a controversial broadside, worthy of a response. The spokeswoman spoke against the ad with conviction. She offered a counter argument that was precise and logical and fair. The spokeswoman cleanly invoked her candidate's greatest legislative achievement, in an eminently reasonable way, in her candidate's defense.
And that spokeswoman's response is being hailed as one of the 2012 campaign season's most colossal cock-ups.
Sigh. Here's what happened. This week, Priorities USA Action, a super PAC run by former Obama adviser Bill Burton (who is surely not "coordinating" his efforts with the Obama campaign, because that would be tsk-tsk illegal!) put out a brutal attack ad. It tied the activities of Bain Capital to the death of a woman who lost her health care coverage as a result of her husband losing his job at GST Steel, one of the celebrated casualties of Bain's business practices. As Alex Burns reported:
The commercial casts Mitt Romney’s business background in a severely negative light, but it's not a typical slash-and-burn attack ad. Instead, it features former GST Steel employee Joe Soptic speaking to the camera about what happened when the plant where he worked shut down.
"I don't think Mitt Romney understands what he's done to people's lives by closing the plant. I don't think he realizes that people's lives completely changed," Soptic said. “When Mitt Romney and Bain closed the plant, I lost my health care and my family lost their health care. And a short time after that my wife became ill.”
In 2006, Soptic's wife passed away, and a future attack ad was born.
In the immediate aftermath of the ad's deployment, the Romney camp issued a relatively standard response, referring to the ad as dishonest and accusing the president and his allies of using such attacks to distract from economic issues. And nothing more might have come of this had Romney's team stuck to that story.
But on Fox News this morning, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul went "off-script," and amid a larger declaration about the ad being despicable and some pushback on the facts of the ad, she offered this statement in Romney's defense: "To that point, if people had been in Massachusetts, under Governor Romney's health care plan, they would have had health care."
After that came the deluge of conservatives savaging Saul for getting lost on the road to Damascus, essentially accusing her of giving away the election.
The thing is, though, Saul's logic in citing Romney's creation and implementation of CommonwealthCare in Massachusetts is impeccable. Her baseline argument: If you are going to hit Romney with the Bain practices that allegedly led to this woman losing her health insurance, you surely must credit him for his legislative accomplishments, which enabled thousands of uninsured people to obtain life-saving care. That is, for the most part, pristine reasoning.
The only problem, of course, is that this wasn't offered in 2008, when it would have been hailed as a brilliant defense. We've once again come face to face with the perplexing weirdness at the center of Romney's entire presidential effort: in 2012, Romney is not allowed to run on the singular achievement of his career -- Massachusetts health care -- that earned him a spot in the world of GOP presidential contenders in the first place.
I've said this before: for all of the grief that Romney has taken for his multitude of flip-flops over the years, those are not, collectively, as damaging to Romney's ambition as the way the Republican Party has flopped on him. In 2008, RomneyCare was held to be an accomplishment with edge -- he'd neatly co-opted a key Democratic Party plank, universal health care, and delivered it to his constituents, using the individual mandate concept dreamed up by the conservative Heritage Foundation. Coupled with his time spent rescuing the Salt Lake City Olympics, Romney had reason to brag about his managerial acumen and problem-solving ability.
But after Romney's idea got re-co-opted by the Obama administration, Romney became another victim of the vagaries of tribal politics, which dictated that anything that even vaguely resembled ObamaCare was now anathema. Romney has tried to manage this mess by explaining away his own accomplishment as something that he never envisioned being imposed by the federal government. That argument hasn't gained much traction, probably because people essentially remember that his health care accomplishment was front-and-center during his 2008 run.
And if the reaction to Saul's statement proves anything, it's that the tribe has only become less inclined toward Romney's health care law. The fury, in this instance, was led by Red State founder Erick Erickson, who earnestly tweeted: "OMG. This might just be the moment Mitt Romney lost the election. Wow." Ever since then, he's been blogging about Saul's statement as if it were a massive disaster, assuring his readers that "Mitt Romney’s ardent supporters are fit to be tied today." Rush Limbaugh has since piled on, telling his listeners that "Andrea Saul's appearance on Fox was a potential gold mine for Obama."
The sentiments being expressed by Erickson and Limbaugh, it should be noted, are not universal. Erickson himself has written about some of the negative reaction to his remarks, and while no one he cites defends Saul, there are apparently some who are giving Erickson grief about his outsized reaction. Erickson, however, haughtily dismisses these concerns:
Andrea Saul cited Romneycare approvingly, conservatives rightly piled on, and Romney supporters are defending the guy.
“You’re hurting him,” cried one.
“Thanks for making this the big story of the day, Jackass,” cried another.
Andrea Saul made this the big story of the day. She is hurting Romney. She is an official voice of the campaign. This was an unforced error of monumental idiocy and the blowback is deserved, appropriate, and -- most importantly -- absolutely necessary.
He goes on to approvingly cite the remarks tweeted by fellow RedStater Dan McLaughlin:
What conservatives are doing re Andrea Saul's comment is the same as how you housebreak your dog. Romney needs to know not to go there.
Tie Andrea Saul to the roof of a car and drive her to Canada, I guess!
At any rate, Saul's comment is now bound, inevitably, for the Kinsley Gaffe Hall Of Fame -- the "Kinsley Gaffe" being, let's recall, when "a politician tells the truth -- some obvious truth he [or she] isn't supposed to say." But I'm not sure people understand that this particular Kinsley Gaffe deserves an asterisk -- it's only a gaffe by dint of the fact that so much has changed between 2008 and 2012. And for that reason, I'm not sure people fully understand just how outrageous it would be for Saul to be subjected to "housebreaking" over this flap.
[CORRECTION: This piece has been edited to remove an inadvertent reference to René Goscinny's beloved comic book series, and replace it with the word "asterisk." Je suis désolé.]
[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]