Opinion: Romney Secret Video Sums Up His Latino Problem

Romney's comments are like nails to the chalkboard for many Latinos

September 18, 2012, 2:34 PM

Sept. 18, 2012— -- By now, you have heard Mitt Romney's comments to a closed-door gathering of fundraisers, posted by Mother Jones, in which he wrote off nearly all of President Obama's supporters as freeloaders on the government dole.

"There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them," he was caught saying by a secret video recording of his remarks.

And here's the kicker: "My job is not to worry about these people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Romney's statement is damaging for several reasons. He makes a false assumption that every person who doesn't pay income tax votes Obama. Writers like David A. Graham of The Atlantic, National Review's Rammesh Ponnuru, and others dive deeper into the factual and political folly of this belief.

But the broader takeaway of Romney's comments tap into the core reason why he has struggled so mightily with Latino voters.

As Josh Barro and David Brooks note, Romney's main problem has been his inability to relate to voters and convey that he truly cares about their well being. His comments essentially tell voters of lesser means that they don't matter one bit and that they deserve no help from their government.

And in the same breath, Romney made a throw away-joke (that he's made before) suggesting that it would be easier for him to win the presidency if he was Latino.

Speaking of his father's childhood in a Mormon colony in Mexico, "Had he been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot of winning this."

Why will all that resonate with Latinos? Latinos remain one of the hardest-working and most optimistic people in the U.S., despite the fact that a disproportionate number live in poverty (thus likely don't pay income taxes) and rely on some government services like Medicaid and food stamps. It's not as if they intended it to turn out that way. Latino immigrants to this country came here because they believe America is a place where you get ahead through hard work, not to live off government assistance.

And while not offensive on its face, Romney's joke about the supposed political benefits of being a Mexican-American comes across in context as self-serving. Has Romney spent more time trying to actually understand the Latino experience in America or practicing that one liner?

(If anything, Jeb Bush's joke about being the first Latino governor of Florida was just funnier.)

This incident has to be frustrating to the sect of the Republican Party and Romney's campaign, which has taken painstaking steps to make the GOP and its standard bearer more attractive to the Latino community. In addition to their efforts at the convention, the Romney campaign chose this week to focus on Latino voters. He gave a speech on the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Monday before the videos leaked and is participating in a "Meet the Candidates" event with Univision on Wednesday.

If you don't believe Romney's comments could be politically costly, ask white-working class Democrats in Pennsylvania what they think of President Obama's "bitter clingers" moment from 2008.

All this reminded me of what George W. Bush's Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez told us back in April about the difference between Romney and Dubya's ability to appeal to Latino voters."Gov. Bush had some kind of personal quality that made it easier to connect with the Hispanic community, despite his privilege," he said.

Instead of channeling that empathetic quality and inspiring Hispanics that their faith in the American Dream is well founded, we're reminded of all the reasons why the GOP has a toxic image among three-quarters of Latino voters. Romney would have been better served to articulate how his vision of government could help the "47 percent" get ahead instead of writing them off as leetches on society.

Mitt Romney said in April (also at a private fundraiser) that his deep hole with Latino voters "spells doom for us." He repeated those comments in this most recent video, saying that the GOP has "some great Hispanic leaders" who will "help communicate what our party stands for" in a way that appeals to Latinos.

But this incident shows that Romney still hasn't come close to figuring it out how to do that himself.

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