What Mitt Romney Was Really Saying

Whenever we get a glimpse of a candidate speaking in a place where he didn't know he was being recorded, there's a powerful temptation to conclude that the "real" person has been revealed. After all, campaigning is almost all artifice, and every other moment at which we see the candidate, he's acutely aware that he is on stage, with people watching his every expression and listening to his every word. This is how many people are interpreting Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comments we learned about yesterday, even though Mitt was certainly on stage, even if he didn't know he was being recorded. For instance, Jonathan Chait says, "the video exposes an authentic Romney as a far more sinister character than I had imagined. 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." McKay Coppins reaches the same conclusion, that "Romney seemed to give the closest thing to a candid description of his worldview," as evidenced by the fact that "his delivery carried none of the discomfort or scripted nature of his stump speeches, and the tone was markedly different from that of the remarks he delivers at fundraisers open to the press." Our own Bob Moser agreed yesterday.

I'm not buying it. As I've maintained for some time, for all intents and purposes there is no "real" Mitt Romney. His political beliefs are the equivalent of Schrodinger's cat. They exist in every state at once until you open the box to observe them. If the one opening the box is a Tea Partier, they instantly lock into place as a set of Tea Party beliefs; if it's a bunch of GOP plutocrats staring down, that's whose beliefs he'll mirror. Romney has spent the last five years in an intensive period of study, with his subject the contemporary American conservative mind in all its permutations. He's well aware that the misleading talking point about 47 percent of Americans not paying taxes gets repeated all the time on the right, in private and public. What he was telling the people in that room is what he tells any group of people he speaks to. His message was, in Christine O'Donnell's immortal words, "I'm you."

And it just happens that before this particular group, "I'm you" was absolutely true. But it was necessary for Romney to explain to them not just that he's like them, but he believes everything they believe. And the Randian idea that society is made up of makers and takers, and all those shiftless mooching takers are voting for their patron Obama, is something those funders believe with every fiber of their beings. Does Romney actually believe, as he says on the tape, that "I have inherited nothing. Everything that Ann and I have, we have earned the old-fashioned way"? Maybe, maybe not. But he knows that the ideas that every rich person got rich on nothing but merit, gumption, and hard work, and your wealth is proof of your virtue as a human being, have become absolute gospel among the kind of people who plunk down $50,000 to have dinner with the Republican nominee for president.

I'm not trying to let him off the hook here; "I was only pandering" is no defense for the repetition of abhorrent views (and subsequently, Mitt has insisted that he wasn't only pandering, but saying what he really thinks). But show me an instance in which Mitt Romney tells a group of people something they don't want to hear, and then I'll believe we've gotten some insight into the "real" Romney.

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