Four Explanations for Romney's Endless Gaffes About Money

Mitt Romney seems like a smart and careful guy, so why does he keep saying ridiculous things -- like Sunday's comment, "I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners" -- that only worsen the perception that he's a wealthy buffoon who doesn't understand the rest of us? We have four theories.

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Mitt Romney seems like a smart and careful guy, so why does he keep saying ridiculous things -- like Sunday's comment, "I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners" -- that only worsen the perception that he's a wealthy buffoon who doesn't understand the rest of us? We have four theories.

Theory 1: He's just that clueless. The most straightforward theory is that Romney is just a rich guy who's always been rich and has no idea how normal people talk and think.
Example: "When it comes to his wealth, Romney is a clumsy rich guy who hasn't learned how to talk about these issues in public," MSNBC's Steve Benen says.
Theory 2: He's authentic! This one's pretty straightforward, too: Romney just isn't ashamed of his wealth. He's not trying to hide it, it's just that all y'all class warriors expect him to try.
Example: "I think everyone pretty much knows that Romney has made a lot of money," the National Review's Jay Nordlinger writes. "A few weeks ago, a Santorum campaigner-blogger on this site said that Romney was 'pretending he’s not rich.' Well, for a guy who’s pretending he’s not rich, he’s pretty loose with the Cadillac talk."
Theory 3:  He's really bad at pandering. This theory is espoused by New York's Jonathan Chait. When Romney said his wife owned a couple Cadillacs, he was trying to pander to the auto industry to make amends for that "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" op-ed. "I own Detroit cars" is a tried-and-true pander. But there's another pander that outranks it: the "I'm just as mad about the economy as you" pander. This misunderstanding of the hierarchy of pandering also played out in Romney's remark about how even though he lost to Ted Kennedy in the 1994 Senate race, he was happy to have at least forced the Democrat to take out a second mortgage. Perhaps Romney was thinking, "I am before a conservative audience. Conservatives hate Ted Kennedy. They would love to know how I hurt Ted Kennedy." But he forgot that many in the audience might be in trouble right now with their own second mortgages.
Example: Chait writes, "If somebody were to accuse you of hating the Girl Scouts, you might point out that we bought a half dozen boxes of Tagalongs. That’s Romney’s thought process. I don’t hate Detroit, I love Detroit! I have a whole fleet of cars! My wife rides in a Cadillac, with a driver following behind in a second Cadillac in case she feels like changing colors in the middle of the trip! What? What did I say?"
Theory 4: It's a Freudian slip. He's trying so hard to repress his rich-guy jokes that they can't help but bubble to the surface. You can imagine him thinking, "Don't sound rich, don't mention money" so much that these slips can't help but come out. It makes you wonder if Ann Romney can shed some light on whether Romney displays this tendency off the campaign trail. Has she ever asked him if these pants make her look fat? Has he ever responded "No, they're much more flattering than those black ones you wear all the time," or "No, they really hide those fat deposits on your thighs," or "No, I can't even tell you've gained weight"?
Here's a timeline of Romney's rich-dude gaffes -- plenty of evidence to come up with your own theory:
June 16: After a small group of unemployed Floridians explain to Romney their financial troubles, Romney jokes, "I should tell my story. I’m also unemployed."
Best fits: Theory 3. He really thought that line would help him relate to people who don't have jobs, but it only reminds people that he's so rich he doesn't have to work.
August 11: Romney responds to a heckler at the Iowa state fair: "Corporations are people, my friend."
Best fits: Theory 2. He's just authentically in favor of big corporations funneling money to their shareholders and employees. Who would expect Republicans to disagree?
December 10: At a debate, Rick Perry accuses Romney of deleting a passage in his book saying Romneycare would be great for the rest of the country. Romney says that's wrong, but Perry persists. Romney says, "Rick, I'll tell you what -- [chuckle] -- 10,000 bucks -- $10,000 bet?" (Note: that chuckle is in the original transcript.)
Best fits: Theory 1. He's clueless that for most people casually making a $10,000 bet is incredibly reckless. This wasn't a pander, or even much of a statement of authenticity, just tone-deafness.
January 8: Romney implies only rich people should go into politics at another debate. Romney said: “I happened to see my dad run for governor when he was 54 years old... He had good advice to me. He said never get involved in politics if you have to win election to pay a mortgage." He also said of Ted Kennedy, "I was happy that he had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me."
Best fits: As noted above, Theory 3, not understanding how to pander.
January 8: After the morning debate, Romney let another one slip: “I know what its’ like to worry about whether or not you are going to get fired... There are times when I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.”
Best fits: Theory 3. Like the "I'm also unemployed" line, trying to relate about job worries only reminds people he's rich.
January 9: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me."
Best fits: Theory 4, a Freudian slip. Like the "corporations are people, too," quote, this was Romney trying to be authentic about expressing his world view. But if he had stuck with just the second sentence, this would never have been a gaffe. It's the first seven words that he blurted that made it so damaging.
January 11: Romney implies we should only talk about income inequality away from the rowdy riff-raff. "I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like."
Best fits: Theory 2. There's nothing about Romney to suggest he's sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street protesters, so he's just saying what he thinks: income inequality may be a problem, but it's not something to holler in the streets about.

January 17: Romney explains that he pays only about a 15 percent tax rate because of the source of his income: "For the past 10 years, my income comes overwhelmingly from investments made in the past, rather than ordinary income or earned annual income. I got a little bit of income from my book, but I gave that all away. Then, I get speakers fees from time to time, but not very much." The "not much" from speaking fees? $374,000.
Best fits: Theory 1. Like casually making a $10,000 bet, he's displaying he genuinely has a different relationship to money than most of the people who he's talking to.

January 23: Another debate brings out some interesting comments. When asked about releasing his tax returns, Romney awkwardly says, "I pay all the taxes owed. And not a penny more. I don't think we want someone running for president who pays more taxes than he owes." Later he again brought up how fun it was to cause Kennedy financial distress. "What a great thrill that was. I didn't beat him, but he had to take a mortgage out on his house to defeat me."
Best fits: Theory 3. Look, he's looking to be nominated by the Republican Party, which is generally against paying taxes. So, this is  an explicit pander. But not one he should make.
February 1: "I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”
Best fits: Theory 4. Only someone who is trying very hard to not provide Democrats with attack ad sounbites could string together those seven words.
February 24: "I actually love this state. This feels good being back in Michigan ... I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles. I drove a Mustang and a Chevy pickup truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually."
Best fits: As noted above, Theory 3, bad at pandering.
February 26: At the Daytona 500, Romney was asked whether he's a Nascar fan. "Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans," he replied. "But I have some great friends that are NASCAR team owners." The audio clip:
Best fits: Theory 3. Being friends with NASCAR owners is not the same as being a fan of NASCAR.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.