Frank Rich on the National Circus: Romney’s Bubble Bursts

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with assistant editor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the leaked Romney video, Stuart Stevens and his enemies, and the bogus attacks on Maureen Dowd.

What had already been a bad week for Mitt Romney took an even worse turn yesterday when Mother Jones released secretly recorded video of an exclusive Romney campaign fund-raiser at which he tarred the president’s supporters as people “who believe that they are victims” and “who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” What will this do to his chances?
Maybe he’s already turning things around. The morning after the video landed, he and Ann could be found on Live! (in a segment prerecorded last week) wooing women voters by telling Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan that they care about Snooki and that they watch Modern Family, presumably in defiance of the Republican platform that hates just about everything that sitcom stands for. In any case, that leaked video is just the latest in a string of Romney campaign calamities that began with the Eastwood convention. Mitt’s poll numbers have sunk since the Democrats convened in Charlotte, and the tipping point may have been his deer-in-the-headlights moment over Libya. The video is a coup de grace.

After the video leaked, Romney defended his comments by insisting that he delivered the “same message” at the fund-raiser that he gives to all voters. Is he right? Or does the video reveal something more damning about the “real” Mitt Romney?
I had not previously heard Romney dismiss 47 percent of the population as freeloading “victims” — a statement that will make it extremely difficult for him to govern in the unlikely event that he becomes president. The video was revealing indeed, particularly because it solidified previous impressions that Romney can be a bully to those not in his clique (that prep-school incident), is “not worried about poor people,” and, perhaps most damaging of all, that he lives in a bubble and has no idea how Americans actually live. He didn’t realize, for instance, that the despised 47 percent paying no federal income taxes are not the loafing, Obama-loving socialists he seems to think they are but that many of them are members of his own base and/or residents of red states: elderly retired voters and poor people in rural America, notably the Deep South. He also seems clueless about the fact that the majority of those not paying federal taxes do pay payroll taxes. This is without question the real, out-of-touch, patrician Romney in unadulterated form, and I dare say that if he had to take a pop quiz about Modern Family, he’d know as little about that as he does about most Americans’ household finances.

The fund-raiser captured in the video took place at the Boca Raton home of Marc Leder, a private-equity kingpin. The New York Post reported last year that Leder hosted Bridgehampton parties “where guests cavorted nude in the pool and performed sex acts” and “scantily dressed Russians danced on platforms.” So far, Romney hasn’t been seriously damaged by the unsavory reputations of some of his sugar daddies. Will that change with Leder?
Hard to say, but what this character brings to the sugar-daddy narrative that the other fat-cat conservative contributors have lacked is the irresistible element of sex. I suspect we are only just beginning to learn about Leder, whose entire life will now become a subject of intense scrutiny. And let’s not forget that we still haven’t seen the entire, lengthy fund-raising video. In his hastily called press conference Monday night, Romney implied that he would be vindicated once we heard the audience question that prompted his “47 percent” musings, and he expressed the hope that someone would “put out the full material.” David Corn of Mother Jones has indicated he may grant that wish, and if the video keeps emerging in dribs and drabs along with new Leder revelations, this story could keep going for some time.

Even before this story broke, Mitt couldn’t have been having a good day. On Sunday, Politico published a report suggesting that Romney operatives, eager to assign blame for the campaign’s failings, had formed a circular firing squad (with most of the rifles trained on campaign maestro, Stuart Stevens). Is this evidence of truly damaging turmoil or just a case of malcontents blowing off steam?
Such backbiting happens at some point with virtually every presidential campaign. Back in June, the Washington Post ran a story about panicky Democratic operatives, including James Carville, fretting about the Obama operation shortly after the president gave the Republicans ammunition by stating that “the private sector is doing fine.” That said, one of the things I learned while imbibing conservative media for my new piece in New York is that many on the right were disgruntled about the Romney campaign well before these latest mishaps. Though, in fairness, not everyone. Karl Rove thought everything was going great. And so does the pollster Dick Morris, who, during convention week, flatly predicted on Fox that Romney would leave Tampa with a six-to-eight-point bounce. Since Morris assured Sean Hannity that he has never had a wrong poll, Romneyites can breathe easy. In a September 14 column, Morris crunched all the numbers, the Obama convention bounce included, and reported that “the likely Romney triumph” in November is becoming clearer by the day.  

In the midst of all this, the Romney campaign is apparently changing strategy, with BuzzFeed saying Romney will try to mobilize the base with talk of God and patriotism and Politico reporting he’ll focus on a wider range of issues like China and Washington dysfunction. It’s September 18. Can he really make a course correction this late?
Among the many things that have gone wrong with the Romney campaign, perhaps the most obvious is that it has never stuck to any strategy.  Once upon a time, Romney was going to spend every single day talking about the failed Obama economy. That best-laid plan hit the twin icebergs of Todd Akin and Romney’s gratuitous, hapless trip abroad. Then came the convention, with yet another new strategy — to show America that he and his wife are jus’ folks and like to eat pancakes with their strapping sons. What’s next? So contradictory are the new strategies cited by BuzzFeed and Politico that what was an ADD campaign now seems to be descending into complete chaos. And the man responsible for this is not Stuart Stevens or any other political operative. It’s the I-know-better-than-you-do CEO Romney himself, who, as Politico reported this week, even micromanaged the frantic, indecisive speech-writing process that yielded a convention address with no mention of the war in Afghanistan.

One of Mitt Romney’s strongest supporters, Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu, appeared on CNN’s State of the Nation on Sunday to warn Americans about Iran’s nuclear program. Is this just Bibi brazenly stumping on behalf of his old friend (and preferred candidate) Mitt Romney? And how many undecided U.S. voters (old Jews in southern Florida included) do you think really care about the U.S. electoral preferences of Israel’s leader?
As a Jewish-American supporter of Israel, I deeply resent Netanyahu’s injection of himself into the post–Labor Day heat of a hard-fought American presidential campaign, and as an obvious partisan at that. I doubt his performance will sway many votes — even in Florida, where Bill Clinton is Obama’s not-so-secret antidote. But I do think Netanyahu’s doomed public efforts to bludgeon an American president into war are not remotely in the best interests of Israel and risk a real backlash. Netanyahu has seriously misread an American citizenry, Republicans included, that is sick of its wars and doesn’t want a new one ginned up in the political arena, let alone by a foreign head of state. 

Maureen Dowd was accused of anti-Semitism on Sunday for a column in which she alleged that Romney adviser Dan Senor (who is Jewish) was the “puppet master” behind Romney’s and Paul Ryan’s foreign-policy positions. Commentators from the Breitbart crowd to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg accused Dowd of peddling the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Jewish Svengali influencing power from behind closed doors. What did you think of Dowd’s column and all the backlash?
The charges of anti-Semitism are utterly bogus and an attempt to change the subject. Maureen’s column was a well-deserved takedown of Dan Senor, who is best remembered for lying to the American public about how well everything was going when he served as Paul Bremer’s flack during the disastrous early American occupation of Iraq. And Senor is typical of the neocons — yes, many of them are Jewish, and so what? — who are the puppet masters of the vacuous truculent Romney-Ryan foreign policy. (And it’s not just liberals who are appalled by the return of the neocons; check out the foreign-policy bloggers at the American Conservative, who are quite eloquent on the subject.) By the way, Jon Stewart did his own demolition job on Senor on Monday night’s Daily Show, and it’s well worth catching up with as a refresher course on Senor’s history. The guy is doing for Romney just what he did for Bremer in Iraq: greasing the skids for his demise.

Frank Rich: Romney’s Bubble Bursts