Beyond the obvious damage posed to his presidential hopes, Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded remarks also offer an instructive glimpse into how our political campaigns are run. The lesson: Politicians say different things to rich people than they do the rest of us.
Let’s be real about the Romney comments. They didn’t necessarily shock people by revealing some new thought process about the candidate that wasn’t already assumed before. They didn’t contradict his policy platform, such as it is, which calls for sharp reductions in federal spending on large numbers of Americans.
What gave them life — beyond their intrinsic crassness — was that this is not how Romney usually talks on the campaign trail. We caught him speaking frankly about political tactics. We heard him writing off huge chunks of the nation. And we heard him saying things he apparently only thinks — and he said them about one group of people, to a different group of people.
Which raises an obvious question: Why? If you’re thinking this all could have been easily avoided had Romney just given his stump speech at that fundraiser, you’re right.
The reality, though, of a political system in which wealthier people can give huge sums and TV advertising time doesn’t come cheap, is that big donors have a great deal of leverage, and candidates feel compelled to kiss their rings in all sorts of ways.
As a result, donors are given outrageous — though, usually, completely superficial — promises, in return for their largesse. For example, a “high dollar” campaign fundraising event will be billed as a chance to hear the “real inside scoop” of what’s going on in the campaign. So, candidates are often admonished by their fundraising staff not to give their usual stump speech, because these donors expect more. It’s the same reason big money folks are invited to take part in “strategy” calls with campaign staff, who run them through the latest polling (most of it publicly available) and offer optimistic assessments and broad strokes about the strategy moving forward.
Which means that when a candidate attends a fundraising event hosted by a top donor, he or she usually deviates from the stump speech, talks politics, speaks casually, and tries to give the attendees the feeling they’re in on some insider campaign scoops, as an enticement to get invested (literally and figuratively).
At the event in question, Mitt Romney, like so many politicians before, played the role of gregarious, I’m-gonna-let-you-in-on-a-secret, chummy old pal. Unlike so many before, he donned the hat of political prognosticator, talking about 47 percent of the electorate that he wouldn’t have. And then cast those Americans (not all that accurately) as not paying taxes, and called them victims. It’s this same loosy-goosy, throw-out-the-stump-speech approach that likely led to President Obama’s own dramatic screw-up up at a fundraiser in 2008, when he called some voters bitter. (Note: while I’m suggesting similar causes between this and Romney’s flub, I’m not saying the two are equivalent).
Of course, in its own way, it’s probably a good thing that these factors lead to candidates ditching their scripts and speaking more honestly. The problem is, until the courts allow a process whereby every voter enjoys the same amount of speech regardless of their wealth or lack thereof, most of us won’t get our very own Q & A sessions with the candidates. This also means most of us will only get to see these real, unscripted moments if the waiters carry recording devices.
Blake Zeff, a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and former aide to Senator Chuck Schumer and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, is a BuzzFeed contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @BlakeZeff.