In 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater spoke candidly about the possibility of nuclear warfare in Vietnam and of mining the harbors in Hanoi. The uproar was instantaneous, and the conservative Arizona senator struggled to overcome an image of bellicosity that frightened away voters by the droves. He never recovered and lost in a landslide to Lyndon Johnson.
A scant few years later, comedians were feeding their audiences lines like: "They told me if I voted for Goldwater, there would be an expanding war in Southeast Asia and rioting in the streets. I did anyway and that is exactly what happened."
Goldwater always claimed he had been misquoted, forcing journalists covering his campaign to begin taping his every public utterance. It was the beginning of intense accountability.
There can be no such contentions in Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney's startling assessment to a private gathering of fund raisers last May that he was going into his race for the presidency with "47 percent" negative -- voters living off the government, paying no income taxes, who would not cast their ballots for him. The surreptitious recording of the event by an unidentified attendee is clear enough. It left Romney's increasingly inept campaign no choice but to try to make the best of it by admitting that his remarks, while awkward, actually were what the election is all about: the small government, big government philosophical differences between him and President Barack Obama.
In this tit-for-tat political war, Romney's team came up with its own video: from 1998, when, as a young Illinois state senator, Obama clearly advocated the redistribution of wealth, the antithesis of capitalism.
It remains to be seen whether Romney's explanation will convince an electorate that generally sizes up a candidate's remarks literally rather than accepting the nuances beleaguered politicians often cite in trying to explain away damaging statements. There can be no escaping Romney's meaning here, however. He simply writes off almost one half of the electorate, broadly implying he really doesn't care about them.
The matter was made all the worse by Romney's apparent ignorance of the makeup of the 47 percent he'd labeled as freeloaders. As the press quickly pointed out, they include retired Social Security recipients; those without jobs; those with the lowest incomes, and a variety of other Americans --including some older voters -- who actually may support him. The nontaxpayers also include a small percentage with incomes over $1 million a year.
The video's release couldn't have come at a worse time for Romney. The polls show a post-convention bounce for Obama. And that has been further enhanced by the temporary shift of focus from the economy to foreign policy after the former Massachusetts governor's seemingly insensitive efforts to take immediate political advantage of the death of the American ambassador to Libya and three others of his staff.
The furor over that had just begun to fade when the video found its way onto the Internet. Romney's videotaped remarks to fundraisers -- that a lasting dÚtente in Palestinian and Israeli relations was probably unachievable -- caused a stir, although much less than his 47 percent statement.
As Romney struggles to return voters' focus to the economy, polls show he has fallen behind even in categories where he once led the president, including making things better. It's historically amazing that a president with months and months of high unemployment and slow growth can still be leading in the polls. It appears to verify early concerns even among Republicans that Romney doesn't connect well with voters; many see him as just a rich man.
The affair certainly raises questions about Romney's judgment. In this age of electronic eavesdropping, nothing is private. Who doesn't understand that every word, everywhere, should be weighed with that in mind? One wag said candidates should even be wary when speaking their minds to a spouse.
Romney needs to look back on the Goldwater experience to understand that loose lips sink campaigns.
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)