Yesterday I was about 10 feet away from Mitt Romney when he said, “I like being able to fire people.”
And I didn’t even notice that Romney had “gaffed.”
It was in my hotel’s ballroom in Nashua, and he was speaking to a Chamber of Commerce meeting. Not long after I heard him speak those words, I ran back up to my room and wrote that even though I don’t like Mitt Romney at all, he absolutely kicked butt that morning.
The problem was this: everyone else was writing that this was a disaster.
Further, they said that this could give him lots of trouble from other Republican candidates and from Obama.
More quietly, many others were pointing out that in context, what Romney said was entirely defensible. He was contrasting the ability to change your service providers in the free economy with a system where government creates monopolies and you have no choice.
Here is what it looked like:
I think in the full context it looks OK, although Romney seems to have maybe realised that he made a faux-pas.
If he said, “As a customer, don’t you wish you could fire your health insurance company and hire a better one?” No one would have written about how Romney accidentally confirmed that he is a heartless corporate down-sizer and that he loves tearing the heads off employees. Just that pronoun “I” did him in.
So how did I miss it? And how did this become a gaffe?
Because I was taking pictures with a camera lens that doesn’t zoom, I left the gated section in the back of the room where the rest of the media was standing. And I crawled all the way up to next to the Romney family table. I was quite literally on my hands and knees.
When Romney uttered those words, I was still trying to get my best shot. And nobody in my immediate vicinity reacted badly to the line “I like to be able to fire people.” In fact, some of the local Chamber members were nodding their heads in vigorous agreement.
But in the back of the room, media members in their collective cynicism had reduced Romney’s words to a tweet, “I like being able to fire people”- Mitt Romney.
Some of those media members have seen him speak dozens and dozens of times in just the past week, and they wait for him to deviate by even one word from his normal script. Even during the Q&A candidates normally stick to prefabricated rhetoric. So any change allows reporters to say that something ‘developed’ or that a new ‘nuance’ was added.
And rightly, reporters watch for anything that another campaign could use against the one they are covering. Even if it would be unfair to use it.
So the story of Romney saying “I like being able to fire people” wasn’t about him actually flubbing a line or saying something embarrassing. It was about how someone could misconstrue what he was saying so that it would be embarrassing.
He didn’t make a mistake. But, with a little editing, it could appear like he made a big mistake. So, therefore, he made a big mistake. And the media never says, “Romney opened himself up to an UNFAIR attack.”
I learned that perspective is everything. I was in the front with a lot of normal people who were watching him speak, and they loved it. So I thought it was a great event for Romney.
If I had been in the back with all the rest of the media, I would have caught on instantly that Romney had screwed up.
The media that travels with the candidate constantly is just as cynical and punishing to the candidate as his worst political opponent. Most people in New Hampshire and the country are going to see the account of the event that the media gives. Which in this case was a two second clip, followed by a big explanation of how rich Mitt Romney is and how many people Bain Capital laid off.
And you wonder why we have guarded, cynical and stage-managed politicians.