Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mitt Romney’s $10,000 / $1M misunderstanding


“He just seems like he’s got all these things working against him. He’s an establishment guy in an anti-establishment year. He inherits the support of a lot of people who’ve been around politics for probably way too long, he has changed his position on innumerable issues, and he’s a terrible campaigner. Other than that, he’s a great frontrunner.”

Howard Fineman of The Huffington Post made those observations about Mitt Romney to Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, back in June. A lot’s changed for the former Massachusetts governor since then, and the loss of that frontrunner status is only part of the story.

Early June, when Fineman made those comments, was arguably the high-water mark for the Romney 2012 campaign. That’s when Mitt led in Iowa polling and in national Gallup and Quinnipiac polls. But even back then, the 25 percent threshold was Romney’s firewall; he never much broke past that point.

Now his grip on 25 percent is in danger of slipping, but the resurgence of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is only part of the reason. Simply put, Mitt Romney has an image problem; right or wrong, the perception of Romney as a rich, privileged, opportunistic, cossetted operator won’t go away.

The fact that he Spent His Life in the Private Sector may actually be working against him (ask unemployed, foreclosed Jane Q. Citizen how she feels about some of those people working in the Private Sector).

There’s been an abiding sense that Mitt Romney is out of touch with everyday people. He may have proved that by accident on Saturday.

◊ ◊ ◊

At the candidates’ debate that evening at Drake University in Des Moines, Romney, more or less genially sparring with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, offered to settle a dispute with the governor in what he thought was a gentlemanly way: with a bet.

RICK PERRY: I'm-- I'm-- I'm listenin' to you, Mitt, and I'm hearin' you say all the right things. But I read your first book and it said in there that your mandate in Massachusetts which should be the model for the country. And I know it came out of-- of the-- the reprint of the book. But, you know, I'm just sayin', you were for individual mandates, my friend.

MITT ROMNEY: You know what? You've raised that before, Rick. And-- you're simply wrong.

RICK PERRY: It-- it-- it was true then. It's true now.

MITT ROMNEY: That-- now, this-- Rick, I'll-- I'll tell you what. 10,000 bucks-- (APPLAUSE) $10,000 bet?

RICK PERRY: I'm not in the bettin' business, but, okay.

MITT ROMNEY: Oh, I-- I'll—

RICK PERRY: I'll show you the-- I'll-- I'll-- I'll show you the book.

MITT ROMNEY: I wrote-- I've got the book.


The pushback online was almost immediate. A Twitter page was launched with the hashtag #what10Kbuys; it’s been swamped with tweets today. Other candidates in the race for the Republican nomination have jumped on, too, with shiny new ads that skewer Romney for his comments. Even former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who wasn’t even at the Drake debate, weighed in.

But leave it to Perry, wounded but game for the fight just the same, to say it plain. “Having an extra $10,000 that you would throw down on a bet just seems very out of the ordinary,” he told The New York Times on Sunday in Ames, Iowa. “I would suggest to you that $10,000 is pocket change for Mitt.”

Probably not even that. With an estimated net worth in excess of $200 million, Romney’d probably find that much in the cushions of the Ligne Roset sofa in the summer home.

◊ ◊ ◊

But Romney, his back lately to the wall because of Newt’s relentless advance, made everything worse a few days later, doubling down on the original comment in a way that geometrically ratcheted up the appearance of his insulation from the fiscal agonies of the middle class.

On Monday, at a restaurant in Manchester, N.H., Romney defended his Saturday wager, saying, “this was an outrageous number to answer an outrageous charge from him, and it’s been proven time and time again … it’s like saying, ‘hey, I betcha a million bucks X, Y or Z.”

In that single stroke, Romney made a bad situation worse. By equating the improbability of a bet of $10,000 with one of $1 million, Mitt suggested, however accidentally, that there’s no difference between the two.

And in the universe of Mitt Romney’s disposable income, that may well be true. Romney spent about $44.7 million on his first run for the presidency, according to Bloomberg. It’s an open question how much of his personal money he’s using in the 2012 contest, since the burn rate of campaign source funds and campaign donations isn’t historical, but going on as we speak. (One Huffington Post report estimated that the Romney campaign spends 86 cents for every dollar contributed by donors.)

But for all his experience in the Private Sector, Romney should be better about making distinctions between $10K and $1M, even in the benign context of a riposte at a debate. It’s a safe bet the American people know the difference.

Is this how Romney would manage the national purse? Would he be any less cavalier about smudging distinctions between one amount of money and another when the money isn’t even his?

Somebody check the old books at Bain Capital. Right now.

◊ ◊ ◊

At the end of the day, this may not add up to very much. Given the other challenges facing the Romney 2012 campaign, this may ultimately be that proverbial tempest in a teapot. But there’s no escaping it: For Mitt Romney, it’s just one more thing to have to deal with it, another loose rock in Sisyphus’ uphill path, another unwelcome perception of Romney created not by prog media or Democratic presidents or Republican challengers, but by Romney himself.

The candidate has gotten a lot of advice since his $10K misunderstanding went viral: most of it professionally, defensively, strategically political. He probably got some of the best advice — no surprise —from his wife, Ann: Stick to your knitting.

“A lot of things you do well. Betting isn’t one of them.”

Image credits: Romney top, Perry and Romney: ABC News. $10K banknote: via pennylicious.com.

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