When polished meets clumsy

When compared against his Republican rivals, Mitt Romney is extremely slick. After nearly 18 years as a politician, and more than five years as a near-constant presidential candidate, the former governor is clearly smoother and better prepared than his GOP opponents.

But that only tells us that he’s clearing a low bar.

Yesterday, Romney said making over $374,000 in speaking fees is “not very much” money. It was a dumb slip-up that his critics were only too eager to promote. It followed Romney suggesting elected office is only for the rich, clumsily talking about his fondness for being able to fire people, demanding that talk of economic justice be limited to “quiet rooms,” accusing those who care about income inequality of “envy,” daring Rick Perry to accept a $10,000 bet, joking about being “unemployed,” and arguing that those who slip into poverty are still middle class.

The point is not to recount the gaffes, so much as it’s to highlight Romney’s stylistic problem: for all of the guy’s polish as a slick candidate, Romney is still clumsy and gaffe-prone when he speaks his mind. As Jon Chait put it yesterday, the Republican frontrunner “has come to be defined, through a recurring series of off-the-cuff gaffes, as a callous, out-of-touch rich man.”

He has done the work of an opposition researcher on himself…. [T]he total self-portrait Romney has helped craft is utterly devastating: the scion of a wealthy executive, who helped create, and benefited from, revolutions in both the market economy and in public policy in the last three decades that favored the rich over the middle class, and who appears blithe about the gap between his privilege and the lot of most Americans.

As I’ve said before, Romney has been positively associated with “electability” because he is more electable than most of his rivals. But he is the one-eyed man in the land of the politically blind. Romney, by normal standards, is a terrible candidate. He is nowhere near as formidable as John McCain was four years before. The latest poll from PPP has his favorability rating at a miserable 35 percent positive, 53 percent negative. He may win – he probably will win if the economy dips back into recession – but he is a weak candidate who in many ways embodies the public’s distrust of his party.

I often wonder what the race for the Republican nomination would look like this year if Romney had just one credible opponent. I have a hunch his routine rhetorical missteps would be far more damaging.