Mitt Romney's indictment of 47% of America tonight is a damning gaffe because it seems to reflect authentic, impolitic instincts, what some people on his side think some of the time, even if they don't say it.
On April 12, 2008, Barack Obama's deeply patronizing comments on conservative Pennsylvania voters spurred an almost identical flap.
"“And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations," Obama said, explaining — he thought — some voters' politics during the long Pennsylvania primary.
"Pennsylvanians don't need a president who looks down on them," Hillary Clinton responded then. (Today, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said, "It’s hard to serve as president for all Americans when you’ve disdainfully written off half the nation.")
Romney immediately today said he'd been inelegant in his phrasing; Obama, at first, stood fully by his comments, and tried to reinterpret them on the fly. "I'm out of touch?" he asked rhetorically at an Indiana event the night they emerged. The next day, he conceded: "I didn't say it as well as I should have."
His full, combative cleanup effort that Friday night the story broke:
I was in San Francisco talking to a group at a fundraiser, and somebody asked how, well, how are you going to get votes in Pennsylvania? What’s going on there? We hear that it’s hard for working class people to get behind your campaign. Why is that? I said, well, look, they’re frustrated. And for good reason. Because for the last 25 years, they’ve seen jobs shipped overseas, they’ve seen their economies collapse. They’ve lost their jobs, they’ve lost their pensions, they’ve lost their healthcare, and for 25, 30 years, Democrats and Republicans have said we're going to make your community better. We’re going to make it right. And nothing ever happens. And of course they’re bitter and of course they’re frustrated. You would be too and in fact, many of you are. Because the same thing happened here in Indiana, the same thing happened across the border in Decatur, the same thing is happening all across the country. Nobody is looking out for you , nobody is thinking about you. And so people end up - they don't vote on economic issues because they don't expect anybody is going to help them. And so they end up voting on issues like guns and are they going to have the right to bear arms. They vote on issues like gay marriage and they take refuge in their faith and their community and their families and the things they can count on. But they don’t believe they can count on Washington. So I made this statement – here’s what’s rich. Senator Clinton says, well, I don't think people are bitter in Pennsylvania. I think Barack’s being condescending. John McCain says, oh, how can he say that, how can he say that people are bitter. He obviously is out of touch with people
Out of touch? Out of touch? John McCain, it took him 3 tries to finally figure out that the home foreclosure crisis was a problem and to come up with a plan for it, and he’s saying I’m out of touch? Senator – Senator Clinton voted for credit card sponsored bankruptcy bill that made it harder for people to get out of debt after taking money from the financial services companies, and she says I’m out of touch? No, I’m in touch. I know exactly what’s going on. I know what’s going on in Pennsylvania, I know what’s going on in Indiana, I know what’s going on in Illinois. People are fed up. They are angry and they are frustrated and they are bitter they want to see a change in Washington. And that’s why I am running for President of the United States of America.
One more thing worth noting: The sages of politics ruled Obama's comments fatal.
‘That sentence will lose him the election," said Grover Norquist, in a comment I found in my inbox in an Clinton campaign press release. "He just announced to rural America: 'I don’t like you.’"
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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