The Sunday night slipup by Mitt Romney’s Florida advance team illustrates why presidential campaigns are as obsessed with tiny details as the creators of “Mad Men.” With its imposing stone gateway and ivy-covered walls, the waterfront home of financier Jerry Jordan seemed the perfect secluded spot for Romney to hold a no-press-allowed, $50,000-a-person fundraising dinner. But in this political version of “The Palm Beach Story,” Romney’s hush-hush speech was overheard by reporters from the Wall Street Journal and NBC News who adroitly planted themselves on the public sidewalk outside the mansion.
During the long run-up until November, we are facing nearly seven months of Teleprompter Politics when virtually every syllable uttered by Romney and President Barack Obama will reflect the artistry of pollsters and spinmeisters. That is why the only salvation for voters who crave honesty and spontaneity are campaign pratfalls and snafus. Whether it is a hot mic capturing Obama confiding to a Russian leader (“After my election, I have more flexibility”) or Romney’s words wafting over Palm Beach walls, we should cheer from the sidelines every time an aide’s error allows us to hear thoughts not designed for public consumption.
Political fundraisers present a particularly daunting challenge for scripted candidates. Unlike Romney, Obama allows a press pool to attend at least part of most fundraising events, and the White House often releases speech transcripts. But because he offers Democratic donors the glamorous trappings of the presidency, Obama can get away with keeping most of his second-term plans in a blind trust.
Yet four years ago, Obama was recorded at a San Francisco fundraiser by a donor moonlighting as a Huffington Post contributor. The tape of his remarks included the observation that small-town voters in hardscrabble areas of Pennsylvania “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.” Few subsequent Obama comments better capture the duality of his nature. It was a smart, if disembodied, sociological critique coupled with a seeming inability to see these flesh-and-blood voters as anything more than abstract symbols.
Nothing Romney said in Palm Beach came close to this level of self-revelation. There was perhaps an Oedipal moment when he talked about potentially eliminating the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which his father, George Romney, headed for four unhappy years during Richard Nixon’s first term. As Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman wrote in his White House diary less than two months after Romney arrived at HUD in 1969: “George ain’t easy. Is reaching the crisis stage, with threats of quitting, etc.” So maybe Romney is channeling memories of his father’s indignation over Nixon’s resistance to housing integration when he talks more than 40 years later about HUD being a dud.
At a fundraiser, Romney has to offer his bundlers and major contributors something more than an impassioned reading of “America the Beautiful” and the same stump speech they could watch on C-SPAN. The added value that comes from giving $50,000 to the Romney campaign and the Republican Party is to hear the candidate provide glimmers of inside information about the race against Obama. This is bragging rights territory: the ability of wealthy donors to tell their friends, “I was at a private fundraiser the other night with Mitt and he said...”
Even so, Romney’s fundraiser rhetoric was devoid of shocking revelations, because the Man from Bain Capital is almost as buttoned-down with Republican high rollers as he is in public. Still, Romney did flesh out a few policy proposals, like his plan to streamline the government by downsizing and eliminating Cabinet departments and federal agencies. The Department of Education, for example, is on Romney’s secret slash-and-burn list: “I will either consolidate [it] with another agency or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller.”
These are the kinds of details that Romney wants to keep from prying eyes until he is in the Oval Office. Shot down by his glib talk about eliminating the Department of Education during his unsuccessful 1994 Senate race against Ted Kennedy, Romney was planning to be a stealth bomber this time around. As Romney said Sunday night about his hit list of endangered federal agencies, “I’m probably not going to lay out exactly which ones are going to go.”
The Democratic National Committee released a video Tuesday morning attacking Romney for secretly telling donors that he wants to eliminate HUD. This is standard tit-for-tat politics. Little more than a week after Romney accused Obama of running a “hide-and-seek campaign,” the de facto Republican presidential nominee was stealthily tiptoeing around in the underbrush when it comes to his own reorganization plans. Surprise! Hypocrisy is alive and well in presidential politics.
In truth, everything that Romney said in Palm Beach could easily have been anticipated by any voter who has been following the partisan budget wars in Washington. A President Romney inevitably would propose a budget that would decimate Great Society leftover Cabinet departments like HUD and return many educational responsibilities to the states. The biggest obstacle to a full-scale government reorganization might well come from Capitol Hill, because congressional committee chairmen (regardless of party) derive their power from overseeing Cabinet departments.
More intriguing was Romney’s other Palm Beach policy pronouncement—telling his audience which high-income tax deductions he would eliminate as part of his already announced plan to slash income tax rates by 20 percent. (Such across-the-board cuts would disproportionately benefit the affluent, whose top tax rate would drop from 35 to 28 percent.) In a February speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Romney used smoke-screen rhetoric as he said, “There will be some changes in current deductions and exemptions for high-income Americans. Those who receive the greatest benefits from rate cuts will see the most significant limits.”
This was standard carrot-and-stick political gamesmanship. During the campaign, Romney would beguile voters with the notion of a 20 percent cut in their tax rates, which most of them would incorrectly equate with a 20 percent cut in their tax bills. Then, only after the election, would Romney reveal the treasured tax deductions that would be eliminated or capped to partly pay for the rate cuts for the wealthy.
Romney promised during the February speech to the Detroit Economic Club that "these changes will not add to the deficit.” Even though his numbers still do not add up, Romney deserves credit for having the gumption to tell his Palm Beach donor base of One Percenters that they might lose some deductions as part of his tax plan. “I’m probably going to eliminate for high-income people the second-home mortgage deduction,” he confided, even if the audience was presumably filled with people capable of paying cash for all their homes. Romney also speculated that he might go after upper-income deductions for local property taxes and state income taxes.
And as is often the case on the campaign trail, Ann Romney was the apparent Sunday night star in Palm Beach. In her remarks, she likened Democratic attacks on her as a non-working mother to an “early birthday present.”
The flap touched off by Hilary Rosen, the former top lobbyist for the recording industry, represents a prime example of the campaign silly season—when remarks on CNN by a Democratic talking head are equated with Obama administration policy. This overreaction to minor comments is a bipartisan affliction as both parties master the politics of phony outrage. At least with Romney in Palm Beach, it was the candidate himself who was offering the voters a gift, an unscripted moment of uncharacteristic candor.
Update, 12:45 p.m. EDT, April 17: This story was changed to clarify that not all of Obama's fundraisers are open to the press, nor is a transcript always released.