Why Romney's Gaffe Might Not Matter

Stating traditional Republican views baldy seems unlikely to hurt in a GOP primary, and will be irrelevant in a general if the economy doesn't improve

Updated 8/12/10

DES MOINES -- Democrats and liberal bloggers wasted no time today seizing on an off-the-cuff comment by former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in response to aggressive questioning at the Iowa State Fair's famous soapbox that "corporations are people."

Of course, anyone who knows anything about the construct of legal persons know what he means -- corporations are legal entities composed of people and treated like them under parts of the law. See for example this explanation from Cornell's Legal Information Institute:

The law treats a corporation as a legal "person" that has standing to sue and be sued, distinct from its stockholders. The legal independence of a corporation prevents shareholders from being personally liable for corporate debts. It also allows stockholders to sue the corporation through a derivative suit and makes ownership in the company (shares) easily transferable. The legal "person" status of corporations gives the business perpetual life; deaths of officials or stockholders do not alter the corporation's structure.

Also worth bearing in mind is that Democrats have been known to overestimate the populism and anti-corporate sentiment of the American people, who -- even when they poll as fed up and angry -- routinely turn to wealthy businessmen as the alternative to the bums they want to toss from office. Think of "the people versus the powerful," or -- more recently -- the recall election results in Wisconsin.

A defense of corporations against hecklers seems unlikely to have any impact on Romney in a GOP primary campaign, except to the extent it perhaps adds another data point to the picture some are seeking to paint of him as weird -- an effort Republicans will likely be unable to resist joining.

The big question for Romney, should he win the Republican nomination, will be if he seems like the kind of person for whom disaffected independents can vote. Along with the "corporations are people" statement, the Democratic National Committee is also bashing Romney for having helped argue that having raised taxes in Massachusetts should entitle the state to a better credit rating.

That's the sort of thing that would actually work for Romney in a general.

The one thing the present disillusionment with Obama won't change is people's tendency to see in candidates what they wish to, and for Romney right now, where some might see a candidate with no core values, others might see a temperamentally and politically moderate former East Coast governor who has to tack to the right in order to try to win a GOP primary dominated by radicals and who will likely tack on back to as close to the center as he needs to should he manage to run the highly-partisan gauntlet of the primary states. All the facts of the Massachusetts S&P story prove is that Romney, unlike the tea party partisans in the House, is not an ideologue and that he's willing to do what it takes to help his state succeed. Would that all political actors on the right these days had such flexibility!

That said, Romney's carefully calibrated low-key strategy -- from spending more than a year honing and delivering a consistent message on jobs and the economy even while the public conversation ricocheted about to opting out of aggressive plays in caucuses and straw polls -- seems certain to run up against a buzz saw more formidable than the mockery of liberal bloggers in the form of the emerging Rick Perry campaign. Perry is already shaking things up, and his decision to announce his presidential bid in South Carolina the day of the Ames straw poll -- and to let official word slip on Thursday, the same day as the Fox News Iowa debate -- signals that he has the potential to be a formidable campaigner. Or at the very least, that he has a tremendously acute sense of timing.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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