09/18/2012 02:00 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2012

'47 Percent' Tape Defines Romney, As He Is Unwilling To Define Himself

Over the past few days, tension in the 2012 race has been considerably amped up by two statements from Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney. The first was last week's bit of foreign policy criticism, leveled at the Obama administration, in which Romney accused the incumbent of "sympathizing" with "those who waged the attacks" on our embassy in Cairo and our consulate in Benghazi, the latter of which resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.

The second, of course, is the leaked tape of Romney, speaking at a donor bash in Boca Raton, Fla., saying, "All right -- there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing ... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

There's an interesting symmetry to observe here. In both cases, these statements are erroneous in profound ways.

By dint of that fact, the race has been roiled -- President Barack Obama's campaign has gone on the attack, Romney has had to make special arrangements to make his case to the press, and there have been multiple (perhaps overconfident) pronouncements that Romney was toast. We've also seen some of the old hands among conservative commentators criticize Romney's words -- Peggy Noonan and Mark Salter were noteworthy critics of Romney's embassy statement. David Brooks has offered a filleting of his "47%" remarks.

Just as noteworthy: In both cases, conservative pundits who are more closely aligned with the GOP base have stepped up to defend Romney. And their defense isn't merely an attempt to win a spin war, and get the context of Romney's remarks in the best possible light. Rather, they are defending Romney because these are the sorts of things that they have longed to hear Romney saying. RedState's Erick Erickson found the remarks to be revelatory, tweeting: "Dammit! I'm just now seeing these Romney secret videos. We need that guy on the campaign trail!" FreedomWorks' Dean Clancy thanked Mother Jones on Twitter for a "new video that makes me like Mitt better than I did."

But this is where the symmetry ends. If you need to spot how Romney feels about having to litigate these various statements, these two pictures tell the story. Yes, certain Romney allies (the ones who are more specifically defined as "Obama foes") will argue that both play well with the base. But Romney's foreign policy statement, as wrongheaded as it may have been, was a carefully crafted, meticulously managed bit of campaign politics. The same can't be said for this unexpectedly viral video that has dragged Romney into a conversation he wasn't seeking to have.

Of course, Romney was seeking to have a conversation that's kind of like the one the "47%" video sparked. As Buzzfeed's McKay Coppins reported:

Mitt Romney's campaign has concluded that the 2012 election will not be decided by elusive, much-targeted undecided voters — but by the motivated partisans of the Republican base.

This shifting campaign calculus has produced a split in Romney's message. His talk show interviews and big ad buys continue to offer a straightforward economic focus aimed at traditional undecided voters. But out stumping day to day is a candidate who wants to talk about patriotism and God, and who is increasingly looking to connect with the right's intense, personal dislike for President Barack Obama.

Romney's argument that Obama sympathizes with embassy attackers fits into that argument. But the tactic is part of a larger strategy: Define Obama. And that's a perfectly sensible thing for Romney to be doing right now, ahead of next month's debates and the sprint to the finish. But the donor party video has largely derailed these efforts, and it's easy to see why -- Romney's remarks don't so much define Obama as they define Romney himself. And let's face it, the definition isn't pretty. As Jonathan Chait remarks, "Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party."

(Beyond that, Romney is caught having defined half the country as parasites. Now, there's a good chance that many of the people who actually form part of that 47 percent cohort are not going to see themselves as the target of that critique. Gov. Scott Walker's victory in the Wisconsin recall demonstrated that those on the margins of the nation's economic dislocation are perfectly enthusiastic about the further impoverishment of others. Nevertheless, one of the strongest hands a presidential candidate can play on the stump is inspiring the country to take up a big, national mission. Romney's going to have a hard time doing that, now that he's made it clear that every time his says, "My fellow Americans," he's only referring to a portion of the population.)

But this is where the problem is -- Romney would much rather be assigning qualities to his opponent than publicly litigating his own. But here, he only has himself to blame. Conservatives of all stripes spent the summer in dumbfounded wonder as Romney allowed the Obama campaign to define him without responding in kind. And for months, they've been begging Romney to set himself to the task of offering policy specifics. Both demands address symptoms of the same disease -- Romney's acute unwillingness to be anything more than an empty vessel. Well, these are the consequences: With the release of this donor party video, Romney is having his vessel filled for him.

Conservatives who are praising this turn of events are simply acting naturally. Like nature, they abhor the vacuum at the center of Romney's campaign, and the "makers-versus-takers" argument that Romney wanted to leave in that "quiet room" is now being amplified by those who have long hoped Romney would take up that set of premises in earnest. This comes at a cost, however. As Ed Kilgore points out, "Mitt’s gotten caught in a statement that is impossible to spin away, and that shreds any remaining pretense that he’s just this nice non-ideological technocrat who’s fooled an angry, vengeful conservative 'base' into letting him become president."

Kevin Drum expands on that:

The damage Romney did to himself by privately pandering to this sentiment is bad enough already. But the most unhinged segment of his supporters is going to make it even worse, repeating his argument endlessly in far cruder terms than Romney did. For at least the next few days, we're going to be consumed with a very public debate about whether America really is in a battle for its soul between the makers and the takers, and that's not a debate that can possibly help Romney. Even if he handles the situation decently himself, he's going to be undone by his own fever swamps.

But it gets even worse for Romney, because the opposite side of his base of supporters is made up of moderates and practical politicians. David Brooks is an example of the first, and he's all but given up on Mitt. Bill Kristol is an example of the second, and he's pretty much given up too. Yet again, Republicans are learning the downside of handing their party over to the fanatics.

The bog-standard Beltway thing to say about all this, of course, is that Romney is stuck now, having to try to make this a "base election," and sacrifice the affection of independent voters in the hopes that he can get the right-wing to the polls en masse. It's worth pointing out that there are plenty of professional conservative commenters who reject this notion. Frank Rich, who wrote about his immersion in right-wing media during the Republican National Convention, found that there were plenty of voices who were willing to decry the Karl Rove strategy of pulling punches in order to keep "that ever-elusive band of Independents, centrists, undecideds, and suburban women who are said to like Obama, but are also disappointed enough to consider firing him" in play:

The only flaw in this placid picture was that if you ventured beyond both the mainstream media and Fox, you learned it bore little resemblance to the mood of much of the right. You also learned that many in the grassroots were infuriated by the media airbrushing, to put it mildly.

That fury, unsurprisingly, was articulated early by Limbaugh. At the start of convention week, he replayed a Bill Kristol admonition, delivered the day before on Fox News Sunday, that the convention had to advance a positive agenda. “So what he’s basically saying is, ‘Don’t make the convention about bashing Obama,’ ” was how Limbaugh translated Kristol’s advice. He was having none of it. “I think it’s been a trick the Democrats have used for decades, and I’m stunned that our side keeps falling for it,” he said. “The trick is: ‘These Independents don’t like criticism! They don’t like raised voices! They don’t like partisanship! It makes them nervous. And whenever the Republicans get critical of President Obama, these Independents just run right back to the Democrats and vote for them.’ I don’t believe that for a minute!”

So the question remains: Has this unexpected hullabaloo over this donor party video torpedoed Romney's best chance of winning in November, or has it accidentally injected sufficient enthusiasm into the conservative base to allow Romney to carry the day? Romney is about to find out, whether he likes it or not.

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