Mitt Romney and the power of playing dumb

The final pre-New Hampshire debate showcases how slippery he can be -- and why he gets away with it

Topics: War Room,

Mitt Romney and the power of playing dumbFormer Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answers a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) (Credit: AP)

Mitt Romney has gotten to be pretty good at playing dumb, and he showed it Sunday morning.

The setting was the fifteenth Republican presidential debate, the final such event before Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary.  One of the most baffling features of the previous debates — including the one held just ten hours before Sunday morning’s — had been the reluctance of Romney’s opponents to confront him on his many vulnerabilities (or for those who did try, their comical inability to pull it off). But in this one, he took some real heat, mainly from Newt Gingrich but also from his other foes and from an uncomfortable question or two. And he seemed to walk away unscathed.

Two particular exchanges typified the morning. One had the potential to hurt Romney’s standing with Republican primary voters, the other had the potential to haunt him in the general election. On both, he had vulnerabilities that were richly earned. So he played dumb.

Take his most heated back-and-forth with Gingrich, over the negative ad blitz that a Romney-aligned Super PAC has used against the former Speaker to devastating effect. Officially, Romney has no connection to the group and can’t legally coordinate with it — facts he’s been happy to point out when he’s been asked to address its ads. But everyone in the political world understands what’s going on, including Gingrich, who has all but admitted that he’s staying in the race to seek revenge against Romney for the ads. Prompted by moderator David Gregory to defend his characterization of Romney as a liar, Gingrich stood his ground and issued a challenge to Romney.

“I wish you would calmly and directly state it is your former staffer running the PAC, that it is your millionaire friends giving to the PAC, and that you know some of the ads aren’t true,” he declared. “Just say that.”



Romney’s response was slipperiness at its most effective. “Of course” one of his former staffers is involved with the PAC and its ads, he said, but “I haven’t seen them and as you know under the law, I can’t direct their ads. If there’s anything that’s wrong, I hope they take it out.” Then he allowed that he had, in fact, seen one of the PAC’s ads, and that he thought most of what it said about Gingrich had been true. Thus did Romney spend the next 30 seconds or so reminding viewers that Gingrich had been forced out as House Speaker, hit with a record ethics fine, and that he’d branded Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan “right-wing social engineering.” He closed by chiding Gingrich for his tone: “I wouldn’t call someone the things you’ve called me.”

It’s hard to see how Romney didn’t get the better of this exchange. Gingrich was complaining about ads and process, while Romney managed to invoke three specific, unappealing aspects of Gingrich’s political biography. Romney will probably take some heat for seeming to flip-flip mid-answer — first claiming never to have seen the ads, then recounting one from memory. But by the end of the exchange, Gingrich was preemptively defending a 27-minute anti-Romney video that a Gingrich-aligned Super PAC is now putting together, even noting which news sources would be used for it. To the extent it’s an issue at all to Republican primary voters, the Super PAC question is probably a very muddled one.

The other key moment came on a question about gay rights, with one of the media panelists reminding Romney of his first campaign for office in 1994, when he said he’d do more to advance the issue than Ted Kennedy and that he’d be a moderating voice in the national GOP. What, Romney was asked, have you done since then to stand up for gay people?

The correct answer, of course, is essentially nothing — at least since gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts and Romney turned his attention to the national GOP stage. Since then, he’s labored to distance himself from his home state’s progressive attitudes, selling himself as a champion of “traditional marriage” even reversing his previous support for civil unions as a substitute for same-sex marriages. But given how close he is to winning the GOP nomination, Romney is now at risk of being positioned too far to the right on gay issues. Public attitudes on the subject are rapidly changing, producing some embarrassing moments for anti-gay Republican candidates.

So again, Romney played dumb, pretending that his tone has been consistent since 1994 and pointing to his willingness as governor to appoint gay people to various positions. Asked a follow-up question about when he last used his voice to call for for increased rights for gays, Romney replied: “Right now.” This had the benefit of looking and sounding good to any general election voters watching (especially when the audience reacted with applause) while being an essentially empty statement, since Romney actually favors fewer rights for gays now than he did earlier in his political career. But somehow, he managed to avoid saying anything that would offend the GOP base while also not handing Democrats any new material for the fall.

During the debate, a new poll came out that showed Romney still comfortably ahead in New Hampshire, with 35 percent. Ron Paul was next at 20 and everyone else was far behind. In other words, Romney is well-positioned to win comfortably on Tuesday, then move on to South Carolina (where the latest numbers are very encouraging) with a chance to put the race away. If he ends up rolling to the nomination this easily, it will be for many reasons, including luck. But Sunday’s debate was a reminder not to underestimate the benefits Romney has reaped from his remarkable ability to play dumb.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>