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posted: 9/24/2012 5:00 AM

Refusing to undo the damage

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I used to joke that there was no hat that Michael Dukakis could have put on in a school or hospital that would have doomed his campaign the way that helmet did (with the strap fastened) at the tank factory. What was he doing at a tank factory? The short answer is that the defense hawks in the Democratic Party thought he looked weak on defense and needed to confront it by doing a defense event, where he ended up looking like a guy who didn't belong on a tank.

Presidential politics, for all the talk about handlers and fundraising and paid media, is painfully transparent. Even the ads that turn out to matter are often the ones that most people never see except on the news, which would include the famous daisy ad in 1964 (which was shown once) or even the anti-Kerry Swift Boat ads that got more attention than air play. And much of the time, the insight comes some other way. For instance, George Bush looking at his watch during his "public forum" debate with Bill Clinton.

With less than 50 days to go, a lot can still happen. Yada, yada. That's what we always say until it's over.

But if you had to guess, the "Romney tape" will, in retrospect, be the moment that defines a candidacy and a campaign because it reinforces precisely what everyone has long seen as Romney's fundamental weakness.

He's a rich, self-satisfied guy who just doesn't get it -- meaning us.

He stands in a room full of rich people and it never occurs to him that someone out there -- maybe the kid in the kitchen, or the woman who served his dinner, or the son or daughter or friend of one of the rich hosts -- isn't a member of the club that Mitt has belonged to all his life. All he sees are the people who look just like him. Everyone else is invisible, or worse -- irresponsible, lazy, the object of his contempt.

He doesn't get that some of the people who need a helping hand from the government aren't "victims," but seniors who built this country, or disabled vets who put their lives on the line, or students who need help to go to college, or children who otherwise won't get a hot meal in the day. He thinks of these "others" as tax wastrels, unlike he and his friends who make their money not by working but by having money. And he doesn't even realize that the way he sees the world is not the way the world really is for most people.

In the days since "the video" came out, I've been asked a lot how his advisers could have been so stupid as to allow him to stand by his comments. There is an easy answer. The fish rots from the head.

Oh, I'm sure there was someone at the table, probably more than one, who told Romney that he should do just what he did: dismiss the phrasing, but stand by his comments. Maybe because they see the world the way he does. Maybe because saying no to power is always harder than saying yes. But I'm equally sure that there were others who told him just the opposite: stop the bleeding; apologize; take it on the chin; eat some crow and try to turn it into a one-day story. There isn't much new under the sun. In a campaign, at this stage, a lot of smart people are sitting around. There is rarely an option (much less an obvious one) that doesn't get put on the table. And then the guy (or gal) who is in charge decides. And in deciding, he reveals himself.

I remember once, back in the 1988 campaign, then vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen said something pretty stupid. I don't remember what it was, and neither did anyone else a few days later because of how he handled it. I don't make many mistakes, he said, but when I do, it's a doozy. End of story. Big guys have no trouble admitting mistakes.

Mitt Romney stood by his comments because he believes them. He made them because of who he is. And who he is isn't a person who can win a presidential election.

2012, Creators Syndicate Inc.

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