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.

Already Michele Bachmann's had to rejigger her schedule to accommodate the Perry challenge, setting up a Sunday battle in Waterloo (yes, the cliched headlines write themselves), Iowa, where she was born and where he announced he will speak at the Lincoln Day dinner in the evening. She'll campaign there too now -- one can't cede one's hometown to an interloper -- and has moved her announced State Fair appearance up to Friday.

Certainly there's no question Romney can be awkward. The father of five boys, he has what I think of as a classic dad personality. Sometimes he's a bit stiff and overly formal, and when his jokes fail, they do so in exactly the kind of way that would make you go, "Oh, dad!" and cover your face with your hand if you were his child. But really, he's only awkward because he's a grown-up trying to seem cooler than he is amid the theatrical ridiculousness of a presidential campaign, and in a general election contest his very lack of cool could seem a plus to those who don't think Obama's hipness got them where they had hoped it would.

His background could make Romney seem distant and out of touch, but Americans tend to like successful businessmen even when they say they hate what they stand for, and it can't come as a surprise to anyone who has paid any attention to politics in the last few decades that a Republican former businessman would defend the interests of businesses. There is also a real constituency for such arguments, election results show.

So long as the GOP does not nominate a divisive radical, the 2012 general election contest seems likely to be a referendum on Obama's stewardship of the economy and whether or not he's brought about results people judge acceptable. Bald and poorly worded statements of traditional Republican positions aren't going to impact perceptions of the Republican nominee as much as the facts on the ground will impact those of President Obama.

Addendum: As to the critical question of how the gaffe is playing in Iowa, driving back from Ames to Des Moines after the debate Thursday night I listened to a local right-wing talk-radio station that replayed most of the shouty exchange Romney had had with the hecklers, whom the radio host repeatedly pointed out belonged to a liberal Iowa advocacy group. The commentator basically presented Romney as a hero for his handling of them and blamed "the liberal media" for accepting the protestors at face value. The quote in question about corporations as people didn't even come up.