As I write, voting in the New Hampshire primary is still underway. With hefty leads in the NH polls, Mitt Romney is the frontrunner in the state and for the Republican presidential nomination. But Romney has handed his GOP opponents, and President Obama, a gilt-edged sword with his comment that:
“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
His statement has now been widely translated to read:
“I like to be able to fire people.”
A feeding frenzy has followed.
James Fallows explains why this is more than just another political gaffe.
He was making a reasonable point about the need for choice and competition — just as [the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee] John Kerry was making a reasonable point about the different stages of the legislative process when he said “I actually voted for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” It was completely “unfair” to use that line against Kerry, because if you stopped to listen to his reasoning, the phrase was merely one clumsy out-of-context portion of a larger “sensible” statement about how Congressional politics works. Exactly as with Romney and “firing.”
But of course that clip hurt Kerry — in part because the Bush campaign team immediately rammed it home, and in part because it connected with an existing vulnerability or impression about Kerry. I think this moment from Romney may hurt him too, for all the “unfairness” of criticizing what he said, because it touches something so emotional and raw.
Statements like this leave a deep imprint because of the way they make us feel about the politicians who have made them. Fallows goes on:
[People] with any experience on either side of a firing know that, necessary as it might be, it is hard. Or it should be. It’s wrenching, it’s humiliating, it disrupts families, it creates shame and anger alike — notwithstanding the fact that often it absolutely has to happen. Anyone not troubled by the process — well, there is something wrong with that person. We might want such a person to do dirty work for us. … We might value him or her as a takeover specialist or at a private equity firm. But as someone we trust, as a leader? No - not any more than you can trust a military leader who is not deeply troubled when his troops are killed.
Paul Krugman cites a more critical analysis of the original statement and suggests that it shows how wealthy Romney lacks a sense of empathy with ordinary Americans.
The clip of “I like to be able to fire people” will become an indispensable symbol for his opponents’ narrative about Romney, that he is a ruthless Wall Street wrecker. The anecdote will be an essential episode in the Romney story.
This is not just an American phenomenon. Gaffes and missteps have been grafted on to a number of British politicians’ personal narrarives. Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan didn’t actually use the words “crisis? what crisis?” when he returned to strike-torn Britain from an overseas trip in January 1979. But his measured comments and laid-back demeanor played into a growing sense that he was out of touch with the escalating industrial strife, now remembered as the “winter of discontent”. Within a few months, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.
The then Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith never recovered from his woeful declaration in 2003 that “the quiet man is turning up the volume”. Neither, for that matter, did Sir Menzies Campbell after his faltering first Commons outing as acting Lib Dem leader in 2006.
Even in “buttoned down” Britain, negative emotions embed gaffes and missteps in our political folklore. Remember the parliamentary expenses scandal? The insensitive way some MPs tried to explain away the moat and the duck house fuelled the public’s resentment.
It’s all further proof that, whatever they may think, politicians cannot control their own narratives.