Mitt Romney Explains the Politician's Art

Back when he was running for president, I used to joke that Mitt Romney was a political version of the T-1000 from Terminator 2—if he got close enough, he could morph himself into a copy of you, adopting your likes, your fears, your ideals and your beliefs. Except instead of doing it to kill you off, he was trying to win your vote.

Ungenerous on my part? Sure. Nevertheless true? Pretty much. And now comes an interesting admission from Mitt, in a new interview with Mark Leibovich. The topic is the infamous "47 percent" remark that caused him so much grief. While Romney has gone through many explanations for what he said, none of them particularly convincing, this may be the most candid yet:

"I was talking to one of my political advisers," Romney continued, "and I said: 'If I had to do this again, I'd insist that you literally had a camera on me at all times" — essentially employing his own tracker, as opposition researchers call them. "I want to be reminded that this is not off the cuff." This, as he saw it, was what got him in trouble at that Boca Raton fund-raiser, when Romney told the crowd he was writing off the 47 percent of the electorate that supported Obama (a.k.a. "those people"; "victims" who take no "personal responsibility"). Romney told me that the statement came out wrong, because it was an attempt to placate a rambling supporter who was saying that Obama voters were essentially deadbeats.

"My mistake was that I was speaking in a way that reflected back to the man," Romney said. "If I had been able to see the camera, I would have remembered that I was talking to the whole world, not just the man." I had never heard Romney say that he was prompted into the "47 percent" line by a ranting supporter.

Forget about the silliness of the idea that Mitt forgot he was in public (in a room full of donors), and thought he was just hanging with some of his bros. He says he was doing a little code-switching, reflecting back to the man his own perspective. To paraphrase Christine O'Donnell, his message to the assembled zillionaires was, "I'm not a person who cares about all Americans—I'm you."

In fairness, we all do that at least a little bit here and there, but politicians are called upon to do it all the time. And though it's one thing to adopt what you believe are someone's habits or cultural mores—say, to find yourself posing for a picture amidst a group of African-American kids and blurt out "Who let the dogs out? Whoo, whoo!" just to show them that you're totally down with that hip-hop thing—it's another to express an idea you don't agree with as a way of convincing someone you're sympatico, as Mitt is claiming he did.

As far as the political world is concerned, Mitt's greatest sin was not being a phony, it was being so transparent a phony (something he shared with Al Gore and John Kerry). We don't mind being conned, as long as the con man has some style, as long as he can make us believe what he's saying, at least for a while.

And if it wasn't so vitally important to us that every person for whom we vote be "one of us," politicians like Romney wouldn't feel the need to twist themselves in knots trying to become a mirror in which we can see ourselves. So in the end, the fault is not in our Mitts, but in ourselves.