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When Mitt Romney’s remarks at a private gathering of donors went public, the Republican presidential nominee tried to explain while critics tried to pounce. In a campaign where access to candidates is limited, how should the news media handle comments intended only for select ears?
- Ryan Grim Washington Bureau Chief, Huffington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, after an exciting, suspenseful landing on Mars, the rover Curiosity goes to work. But first, Senator George Allen had his Makaka Moment in 2006, President Obama, his bitter clingers in '08 and now Mitt Romney has joined the club of candidates taking an unwitting star turn in a video gone viral.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWith 47 percent in a close and contentious campaign full of scripted moments, the unscripted has a way of catching us all, media, candidates and the public alike, off guard. Here to help us understand the origins of this latest off-message moment and the effect it might have is Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post. He is a former staff reporter with POLITICO.com and the Washington City Paper. Ryan Grim, thank you for joining us.
MR. RYAN GRIMThanks for having me.
NNAMDIRyan Grim joins us by phone. Ryan, it is my understanding that while this video came to our collective attention yesterday, the person who leaked the video has been on your radar for quite a while now. Where did this tape come from?
GRIMThat's right. I mean, this guy actually posted a YouTube clip in our comments section, in the Huffington Post comments section, back in early June. But we didn't notice it then. We finally noticed it in August when some other pieces of it started to surface. And we went into our back end and, you know, all of our users have to give an email to register and he started corresponding with us and saying, I have this full, high-quality video, but I'm really nervous.
GRIMI don't want to get sued by, you know, Mitt Romney's really rich friends. This might be illegal. I don't really know and I'm nervous about, you know, the legal consequences. So we talked to lawyers and we were working with them for a long time and just trying to coax out of him this full video promising him anonymity.
GRIMAnd throughout this whole time, I was actually in touch with the Romney campaign so they knew that this was coming. This didn't just land in their laps yesterday and shock them. They've had at least since the end of August to know that this stuff was out there.
GRIMIt wasn't until early September that he posted the 47 percent video, but still the Romney campaign has known about that for a little while as well. And so yesterday, after he'd gone dark for about a week, I just started bombarding with emails saying, look, we're going to move, you know, with or without the full video. And he wrote back to say, I love you guys, but I gave it to David Corn.
GRIMSo at that point, we said, uh-oh, we'd better get this up and so we put ours up yesterday.
NNAMDIWell, for those who have not seen or heard it, let's take a listen to a clip from the video.
MR. MITT ROMNEYThere are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that they're victims, who believe that the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they're entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.
MR. MITT ROMNEYAnd that's an entitlement and the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48, he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. He'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that's what they sell every four years.
MR. MITT ROMNEYAnd so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the sector that are independent, that are thoughtful, that look at voting, one way or the other, dependent upon, in some cases, emotion, whether they like the guy or not.
NNAMDIThat's from the video that was released yesterday on Mother Jones that was of presidential candidate Mitt Romney talking to a group at a fundraising event. We're talking with Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post. He's a former staff reporter for POLITICO.com and the Washington City Paper.
NNAMDINow that you've heard it, if you haven't heard it before, you can call us, 800-433-8850. Does this video of Governor Romney change or reinforce your thoughts on his candidacy? Just share your thoughts, 800-433-8850. Ryan, as soon as a clip like this emerges, fact checkers are all over it. What's the consensus, if there is any, of the veracity of Governor Romney's statement?
GRIMWell, it depends on which part of it. So if you take, you know, fact checkers love numbers so they want to start with numbers. So let's start with the 47 percent of people. Now, if you make a statement 47 percent of people didn't pay federal income tax last year, that would be more or less correct.
GRIMNow, there's obviously a whole bunch of buts that go along with that. You know, but they likely paid federal income taxes in prior years and, you know, the reason that we have a safety net is that because people's fortunes fluctuate. You know, when you're on hard times, then you're not paying as much taxes and you're getting some government benefit.
GRIMWhen you're back on the road to prosperity, then you're kicking back into the system. But the other strange part of it is that a lot of this 47 percent is made up by veterans and by the elderly so it undercuts Romney's other point that this 47 percent will never vote for Republicans. In fact, those blocs vote overwhelmingly for Republicans, particularly seniors.
GRIMAnd, you know, seniors have been paying into the system their entire lives. They don't -- and they do in fact feel entitled to health care because they've been paying into the health care system their entire lives. So basically what Romney said is false because if he said 47 percent of people are dependent on government and therefore are voting for Obama, that's just simply false.
GRIMThe biggest bloc of people who are dependent on government and dependent for their lives, really, are seniors and they simply, overwhelmingly support Republicans. There's no doubt about that.
NNAMDIAnd it also, that 47 percent, it is my understanding, includes active duty military?
GRIMAbsolutely. And, you know, first of all, they're not dependent on government. It's more appropriate to say that the government is dependent on them. But even that aside, those people do not just reflect across the board support Democrats. That's just ludicrous.
NNAMDIThe other point, I guess, that has to be made is that even though some of those 47 percent, I mean, all of those 47 percent may not pay federal income taxes, there are a variety of other taxes that they do pay.
GRIMExactly. People kick in property taxes. They kick in sales taxes, state taxes, all manner of fees and other ways that the government has of extracting money out of your wallet.
GRIMYou'd be hard pressed to find many people within that 47 percent who think that they didn't contribute in one way or another to the government over the past year. And they'd be right because, you know, this is a society. Everybody chips in what they can. Well, not everybody chips in what they can. Mitt Romney paid, what, 13 percent last year and according to Harry Reid, he's among those 40 percent in the decade before.
NNAMDIOur guest is Ryan Grim. He is the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post. He's a former staff reporter with POLITICO.com and the Washington City Paper. We're talking about the remarks made by presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a fundraising event that were revealed by David Corn who is with Mother Jones, yesterday.
NNAMDII'm taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow What has been the reaction thus far from both the campaigns, from Romney supporters and from the general public, Ryan?
GRIMWell, you know, it shows you the best laid campaign plans are useless and, you know, as you get closer to the election -- yesterday was supposed to be a rebooting of the Romney campaign. You know, it started with a bunch of senior advisors bashing Stuart Stevens, the campaign manager for the Romney campaign, which clearly seemed to be kind of a sanctioned leak.
GRIMAnd then, they announce, hey, we're going to be, you know, restructuring and, you know, revamping our campaign and that starts Monday. And then, boom, Monday afternoon this hits and, you know, all of that just gets washed away in the wave of this.
GRIMYou know, the Obama campaign was quickly out with a statement saying something like, you know, what kind of a candidate is dismissive and contemptuous of half of the population? Romney quickly put out a statement that didn't make a whole lot of sense. Then he had his own press conference.
NNAMDIBut he said he didn't say it in the most elegant manner possible.
GRIMRight, that was his press conference that he had about 10:00, 10:30 last night hastily called and he stood by what he said. He said, yeah, I didn't say it elegantly and I hope that the whole video is released. A hope that I'm sure will be fulfilled.
GRIMBut he said, basically, I stand by it. He was even pressed on that by reporters who said, you're not backing away from this? You know, basically an insult to half the country. And he said, no, you know, people who don't pay taxes have less incentive to vote for me because I won't lower their taxes. You know, I guess explain that to the 60, 70 percent of seniors that support Romney, but...
NNAMDIWell, allow me to have Corey in Washington, D.C. join the conversation because I think Corey begs to differ. Corey, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
COREYHi, I just wanted to post more of a comment.
COREYJust basically, the voter, it disturbs me that a comment made at a fundraiser for -- that's obviously is an insider strategy meeting on how to run a campaign is being taken out of context and used as propaganda to show that Romney doesn't care about 47 percent of the population.
COREYHe basically is strategizing on how to run his campaign and how to win the percentage of votes he needs in order to win. That's my comment.
NNAMDIWell, would you characterize the meeting, Ryan Grim, as an inside look at campaign strategy?
GRIMApparently, the question was in response. I mean, the answer was in response to a question about his campaign strategy. But okay, you know, let's assume that that's the case. You know, your strategy for winning over voters is based on your fundamental understanding of how those voters behave, what their lives are like and what policy proposals they'll react to.
GRIMSo what we learned is that Romney thinks that roughly half the country won't respond to his policy proposals because they're dependent on government and won't benefit from tax cuts and therefore will never vote for him. That's his strategic understanding of the American people and, you know, you can agree with it or disagree with it, but I think it's a useful thing for people to know.
NNAMDIOn to Matt in College Park, Md. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTHi, Kojo, thanks for taking my call.
MATTI just wanted to maybe discuss -- Romney has made numerous gaffes in this campaign. First in London, questioning whether or not they could actually handle running the Olympics, then in Israel questioning whether or not the Palestinians were culturally inferior to their Israeli counterparts and now this 47 percent comment.
MATTWhat happens if he becomes president and he makes another comment like this with much more serious implications internationally?
NNAMDIWell, let me try to ask that question in another way because I don't want to force Ryan Grim to be too speculative. Ryan, this isn't the first time one in a highly choreographed and controlled campaign, an unscripted moment has emerged. Looking at similar incidents in the past, what do you think the long-term effect will be or is it too soon to say?
GRIMIt's probably too soon to say, you know. A lot of people have compared this moment to Obama's Bittergate, you know, you recall when a HuffPost blogger Mayhill Fowler captured Obama saying that, you know, people are voting for right-wing candidates and in this case, she meant Hillary Clinton because they cling to their guns and religion in tough economic times. And that was, you know, extremely damaging to him image-wise, but we all know what happened. He ended up winning the primary and he won the presidential election.
GRIMAnd I think partly that is because it was already a very polarized moment. If you supported Obama already you weren't going to drop off of me. You probably weren't going to leave him because of that comment. If you supported Hillary you just supported Hillary that much more after she said it. And it's -- and we're in a similar situation now where, you know, you're down to -- you know, the estimates vary -- 5, 6, 7 percent of undecided voters. So there's only so much that the polls can move anyway.
GRIMSo, you know, the more polarized you are the tougher it is to move people. Then again this is, you know, this is fodder for conversation about Romney, about how he views the country and the economy and jobs. And it'll certainly show up in attack ads. And if Obama can peel off 1 or 2 percent of the undecided, you know, that can make all the difference.
NNAMDIMatt, thank you very much for your call. Ryan, you recently wrote about criticism of Romney's campaign from some conservative commentators saying the ideological battle that they wished for has not fully materialized. Does a leak like this in an odd kind of way help to fire up that base?
GRIMThere are big elements of the conservative base that are celebrating this. I was talking to one conservative yesterday who said, I wish Romney talked like this all the time. Rush Limbaugh on his show today said, good for Romney. It's true, you know. You have a bunch of moochers who are depending on government. You know, they want the class war joined. They want to have this battle 'cause they think that they can win it. And, you know, they think in these existential terms, you know, if they don't win it now they'll -- the country as they know it will vanish before their eyes and things like that.
GRIMSo you definitely have a base of conservative commentators who are saying, good, this is the argument that we wanted. Now you have other people like Bill Kristol, David Brooks and even, you know, some other more conservative commenters who are saying this is awful. I think Bill Kristol called it ignorant and arrogant. So there certainly is unity on the right on how to respond to this.
NNAMDIHere is Matt in Annapolis, Md. Matt, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTHey, Kojo, thanks. I love the show. I had two quick, I guess, points or comments slash questions.
MATTOne is, it kind of sounded like the guest was saying that the active duty military or the military in general might not pay federal taxes and that's not...
NNAMDIOh no, that was not the guest. That was not the guest. That was me and I guess I was referring to the fact that there are tax breaks for active duty military serving overseas.
MATTYeah, that's right. So overseas, people in harm's way definitely do receive some federal tax breaks as their families and things are left behind to fend for themselves. So that is true, but we do pay, I think, our fair share of taxes in general. Secondly, I was just interested to know if the guest or yourself had any percentages on the voting trends of the military. Because in the past, the military was, you know, probably pretty Republican compared to a Democrat. But I think over the last 20 years or so, that demographic is changing quite quickly.
MATTAnd being in the military myself and being in and around military in my civilian life, you know, especially the enlisted population of the military, which is the majority of people in the military, I would say is a very good representation of America itself. And I would say it's more like a 50/50, if not a Democratic-leading voting military at this point. Any comments on that? And I'll take your answer off the air.
NNAMDIAny numbers on that at all, Ryan Grim? You know how you journalists love to crunch numbers.
GRIMRight. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but that rings true, what he said, that the enlisted members are moving it much closer to something more 50/50 where a democrat can peel it off. And two is a very good point about the fact that they do pay taxes. People who collect social security pay taxes and also people pay taxes on their unemployment insurance. So -- but there's this strain of conservative thought that any money that originates at all with the government, you know, therefore you're dependent on the government, whether or not some of that is taxed.
GRIMYou know, federal workers, state workers, teachers, you know, people who work for the EPA say they work hard, they pay taxes but because they're employed by the federal government there's some conservatives who would want to say well, they're part of this government state -- this welfare state.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Ryan Grim, thank you so much for joining us.
GRIMThanks for having me.
NNAMDIRyan Grim is the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post. He's a former staff reporter with political.com and the Washington City paper. Going to take a short break. When we come back, after that exciting suspenseful landing on Mars, the rover Curiosity is at work. We're going to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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