‘It’s going to be absolutely huge’

When Mitt Romney talked to the Nashua Chamber of Commerce yesterday morning about his take on premium support in health care policy, he couldn’t possibly have known the mess he was about to create for himself.

By the end of the day, Romney’s “I like being able to fire people” had become quite a story, context notwithstanding. Jon Huntsman said the line makes the Republican frontrunner “completely unelectable.” Rick Perry’s campaign began offering a downloadable ringtone that plays Romney’s words “I like being able to fire people” over and over again. The DNC is joining in on the fun, too.

Had I even been in the room when Romney said this, I probably couldn’t have predicted the blowback.

What makes the line so potent? James Fallows, hardly a partisan bomb-thrower, had a thoughtful item on this last night. Fallows acknowledged the context, but said Romney’s choice of words hurts him because “it touches something so emotional and raw.”

It’s the word fire…. [P]eople 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.

Here’s a test: If you were making the point about the need for competition, can you imagine yourself saying, “I like being able to fire people…” ?

It’s very hard to predict what kind of political stories will have staying power, and I have no idea if folks will still be talking about this a week, a month, or a season from now. But The Hill reported late yesterday, “Democrats on Monday described the statement as one of several ‘silver bullets’ they plan to use in the summer and fall, if Romney becomes the Republican nominee.”

One labor official said of the planned advertising assault, “It’s going to be absolutely huge.”