09/20/2012 08:42 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2012

It's Now Obama's Election to Lose

An election that was Mitt Romney's to win is now Barack Obama's to lose. Romney's fundraising rant against the 47 percent of Americans he implied were simultaneously Obama's base, tax-evaders, and virtual welfare queens was, of course, a parody of Ayn Rand's dichotomy between "takers" and "makers."

But it creates a very uncomfortable dilemma for voters who were considering whether to gamble on Romney as a possible way out of 8% unemployment -- because they must resolve for themselves what the remarks meant.

One explanation is that Romney is simply an incompetent version of Stephen Colbert -- he was telling his well heeled right wing audience what he thought they wanted to hear, in a tone-deaf way, just as when he asserted, contra-factually, during the primaries, that he was a "severely conservative" governor of Massachusetts.

But even in that context, Romney's choosing the 47% of households who don't pay income taxes as his symbol of the Democratic base is clueless -- because among other groups that 47% includes any Army private with three or more kids.

The other way to read Romney's comments -- figuratively of course, since he is much too smart to actually believe that all Obama supporters are poor, or that all those who don't pay income taxes are welfare state supporters of Obama's. But in this interpretation Romney really was signing himself up with Paul Ryan as a believer in radical, "you're on your own" individualism. David Brooks called this "a country club fantasy." And it runs head into the core Republican strategy this year of choosing a candidate who wouldn't be so hard edged as to terrify the 2008 Obama Surge Voters back to the polls -- a fatal, for Romney, result the 47% remarks seems tailor made to encourage.

Romney's insistence that he meant what he said -- but not literally -- simply leaves the question muddied.

And having undecided voters uncertain about Romney is fatal. While other presidential candidates have made damaging remarks -- Obama's lament over the fear that drove rural voters to their guns being the most apposite -- no one doubted Obama's sincerity. Obama's gaffe helped voters make up their minds. These kinds of statements are not understood as policy papers but as character Rorschach blots. When Michael Dukakis allowed himself to reply to Bernie Shaw's question about the rape and murder of his wife as a policy wonk, it didn't mean voters thought about the death penalty in the polling booth. They simply couldn't connect with Dukakis as a leader.

Romney's whole convention strategy was to clarify his persona to undecided voters, and make them feel comfortable -- so he could focus the issue campaign on the economy. Instead, he's now left them dangling, wondering, "Who is this man really?" The remarks, even as clarified, give Obama a long list of juicy targets, to keep the focus at the debates off unemployment. The bottom-income quintile, presumably the Democratic base Romney actually had in mind, don't pay personal income taxes. But they do pay federal payroll taxes, and on the average their total tax bite is 16% -- more than Romney claimed to pay on his own undisclosed federal tax returns, although we don't know his total payments. So the attack on the 47% puts Romney's taxes back in the spotlight.

Then there is the problem of Medicare. Romney and Paul Ryan have been going to great lengths to assure seniors that really, truly, they believe in the program and want to rescue it. How can that jibe with Romney's argument this week that the big problem facing America is the moral dependency created by entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security? It's hard to discern much enthusiasm for federal health insurance in Romney's Boca Raton remarks. And that he made the comments in Florida, at a house which most Florida seniors will have trouble relating to doesn't make the job easier.

If Obama wants some new avenues to explore in the debate, there is Romney's reference to the 47% believing that the government should feed them. The only reasonable explanation of this is that Romney is attacking food stamps -- which Ryan certainly has, in his budgets. But if this year's polling is crystal about one thing is that an all-out assault on the poor is bad electoral politics, because swing voters worry that Ryan and the House Republicans are heartless.

Each one of these problems could have been severe on its own. Romney will, of course, deny that he paid too little in taxes, has it out for Medicare, or wants to take food stamps away from poor kids. And every time he denies one of those implications of his remarks, he creates greater fuzziness and distance from himself as a leader. If he didn't mean those things, what did he mean?

Right now, unless Obama blows it, I'm now convinced this election is locked down, because Romney has no way back to a narrative which offers his candidacy as a clear, defined, and safer path for the country than re-electing the president.

Romney may well keep the voters he had -- but he didn't have quite enough. And it's hard to see how he adds new ones now. Those voters have been left to wrestle with the dilemma of who he is on their own. And undecided voters at this stage -- there aren't many -- were clearly voters who had some significant reasons for not embracing Romney thus far. Romney might as well have taken his entire ad budget and spent it showing these voters and only these voters the Economist cover that asked, "So Mitt, what do you really believe?"

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."