There's nothing like a good old-fashioned October Surprise... even when the surprises erupt in September and just keep on coming. And even when they're not really surprising at all.
I mean, I can't say I was surprised that Mitt Romney's reaction, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks of all times, to the mob violence that descended on American embassies in Egypt and Libya. Romney might have offered a sober and sincere message of reassurance; instead, he fell over himself in a rush to blame President Obama of... of...
Well, what, exactly? What mud can you sling at a sitting president when some guy creates an obscene and offensive porn video depicting the prophet of a religion that includes murderous extremists amongst its adherents? The filmmaker had nothing to do with Obama; if it comes down to it, under American law he has the freedom of speech to make an obscene and offensive film if he wants, even if it's pretty stupid of him to go out of his way to antagonize people who are willing to kill, as they have done in the past, over political cartoons, let alone porn movies.
But Romney found something to blame Obama for: Apologizing. Not that Obama had actually apologized for anything. The state department personnel who were under siege issued a statement that they did not condone the porn movie, which was posted at YouTube. That didn't matter to the killers who took the life of an American ambassador. But it also didn't matter to Romney, who mischaracterized and politicized the tragedy in a way that seems as senseless, and insensitive, as it does unpardonable. But, give him credit for his convictions (of the moment): Romney has refused to apologize for his asinine and utterly inappropriate attack on the president.
No, it doesn't surprise me at all that Romney failed what was, in essence, a pre-election test of statesmanship. Not after his disgraceful performance overseas; and not given his lack of any coherent foreign policy. Romney's botched response to the terroristic mob violence sparked by the YouTube video might have come to a surprise to his Tea Party supporters, if they bothered about such things or thought them important.
For more traditional Republicans, though, I suppose it was a big surprise--though not necessarily an unwelcome one. After all, the time to know that a candidate is incompetent at little things like dealing with the rest of the world is before the election, not afterwards. As GOP political operative Steve Schmidt, John McCain's campaign manager from four years ago, noted in remarks to the press, "For people who are running for president, this is a test where people evaluate their mettle as commander in chief, and the Romney campaign put out a statement before the facts were in that politicized the matter and gratuitously attacked the administration for something they did not do."
Added Schmidt, "During a foreign policy crisis, you can't build a position on a foundation of politics."
It's the kind of thing that voters who rely on facts care about--as opposed to the flights of fancy that the Romney campaign trades in, proudly soaring as it does free of fact checkers and troublesome things like... oh, what's that thing that the little people have to worry about? Reality?
But I am surprised by the torrential nature of Romney's grave missteps, which have been coming along one after the next at a breathtaking clip. Missteps, did I say? Hell, the guy is practically break dancing. Just how many blunders, bloopers, and oafish miscalculations can a single politician, even one as jellyfish-like as Romney, fit into a single week?
Consider his latest farrago: Romney's airy, and yet also abrasive, dismissal of nearly half of the electorate. At a private fundraiser from last May, Romney essentially declared himself uninterested in 47% of voters--the 47% who, he said, support Obama and, therefore, are by definition "dependent" on government to take care of them:
"All right, there are 47 percent who are with [Obama]," Romney said, "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what."
With those words, Romney wrote off nearly half the electorate, saying he would not be able to "convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
For someone so eager to point to his private sector business success as proof that he can run a nation, Romney seems to have little grasp of mathematics. Throwing 47% of the voters overboard means you're relying on the remaining 53% to get you into office--all 53%, because that's a mighty slim margin to rely on. If, say, 4% (which is, by the way, the percentage of voters who are thought to be GLBT) should abandon you, well, you're kinda sunk.
It reminds me, for some reason, of a bumper sticker I saw recently on an SUV that said only crack whores vote for Obama. "Don't vote like a crack whore," the bumper sticker said. But what if it turns out that the 47% you're dismissing aren't all crack whores waiting around for their welfare checks? What if they are hard-working Americans who don't appreciate thinly disguised economic blueprints that promise to shake them down for the benefit of the already-rich?
Put it another way: What if some of those 47% of voters are small business owners who not only built their own businesses, but are damn glad the government made it possible for modern commerce to exist, thanks to the investment the Federal government has put into in infrastructure? It's pretty hard to ship your goods where there are no roads or bridges.
Or how about this: Plenty of Obama supporters (like yours truly) do not rely on government dosh... in fact, I pay plenty in taxes. I just happen to think that it's worth it to pay for the goods (like roads and bridges) and services (like police and firemen and the military) that the government provides. And if 40 cents of each pay check goes to support someone on unemployment or disability, well, I suppose I can live with that.
Then there's the tiny matter of how Romney evidently got his demographics mixed up. Forty-seven percent of the electorate plans to vote for Obama, period. And 47% of Americans don't fork over income tax to the feds: Most of them, as it turns out, are elderly or poor (and they still pay local taxes; the working poor, moreover, still see a bite taken out in the form of payroll taxes). The two groups of 47% are not one and the same, but Romney seems not to be able to distinguish one group from the other.
Again, are we surprised? Why would Romney, remote from hoi polloi at the best of times, bother to pretend about the poor in a room full of his rich supporters? I mean, somehow I don't think Romney was directing his scorn at the millionaires and billionaires who manage not to pay any taxes. And, er, just why has Romney been so shy about disclosing his own tax records? I mean... hello?
And given his patrician background and distaste for ordinary people, why should Romney bother to separate Americans for Obama from Americans who are retired or poor--who don't have the money, in other words, to not pay taxes the fashionable way, but exporting their assets to foreign shores as though they were other people's jobs? What it comes down to, really, is how to the rich, all us poor (or middle class; when you're as wealthy as Romney, it's a distinction without a difference) folks look pretty much the same.
When news of Romney's remarks broke a few days ago, the Obama campaign took Romney's remarks for what they are: Stinking plutocratic elitism, coupled with shocking, callous disdain for people who happen to be Democrats. Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, told the media, "It's shocking that a candidate for President of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare to a group of wealthy donors that half the American people view themselves as 'victims,' entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to take 'personal responsibility' for their lives."
Oh, and that reality thing? Messing nailed it when he noticed a niggling little fact: "It's hard to serve as president for all Americans when you've disdainfully written off half the nation."
And alienated half the nation, while you're at it. That half doesn't neatly break along party lines, as it happens. Even hard-core Republicans are starting to look at Romney with more than a hint of worry that they've got the wrong man out there.
"This is dangerous," Joe Scarborough, a former GOP lawmaker and current MSNBC pundit, told the press, "not because he's going to lose that 47 percent of the vote - but because you're going to start seeing suburban voters, swing voters, storm away from the campaign as quickly as possible unless he fixes it."
No-Apology Mitt? Fix it? Not hardly. Now, that would be a surprise, but so far, there's no sign of anything that crazy happening. Mitt's done what he usually does, and simply reaffirmed his words; at least we weren't treated to yet another rendition of, "I never said that!," and the public record be damned.
In other words, Mitt is clinging to his ideological stance as fiercely as ever, and his Tea Party supporters are clinging to Mitt (probably because of running mate and Ayn Rand disciple Paul Ryan) even though the air around Romney is getting pretty thick.
After eight years of the fantasyland from which George W. Bush formulated his policies, Romney's flights from the realm of fact (and his occasional forays into unvarnished contempt for us mortals) stand out as a huge red flag. But here's our test as a nation: Are we ready not only to embrace political and economic realities, but to act on them? Are we ready not only to vote our consciences and our guts, but our minds as well?
We'll find out in November just what we're made of. As they say this election season, the choice is pretty stark. We can't afford to make the kind of mistakes, as a nation, that Romney made as governor of Massachusetts, and we certainly can't afford the kinds of mistakes he's made as a candidate in the past week alone.