Mitt Romney and the Culture of Campaign Caution

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Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the National Rifle Association's Celebration of American Values Leadership Forum in Saint Louis, April 13, 2012.

Almost exactly four years ago, Barack Obama made one of the worse gaffes of his political career. He told highfalutin donors at a San Francisco fundraiser that “bitter” voters in rural Pennsylvania “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them… as a way to explain their frustrations.” It was a high sin of campaigning: saying something to one constituency you wouldn’t want another to hear. And he later said he regretted the phrasing.

It was an uncharacteristic lapse for a candidate who had long been the picture of caution both during the campaign and for the duration of his public life prior. This is the guy who reportedly walked out of a bachelor party in 1997 when a stripper showed up, and whose first piece of advice to kids who want to be President is, “Be careful about what you post on Facebook.” Diligent cultivation of public image is something Obama, and all presidential candidates, think about a lot.

Now it’s Mitt Romney’s turn. At a private backyard fundraiser in Palm Beach, Fla., on Sunday, Romney said some things to donors when he likely thought no one else was listening. Reporters outside could hear him, and Romney’s remarks landed in Monday’s papers. But as far as Oz-behind-the-curtain moments go, Romney’s was barely revelatory.

“The Department of Education: I will either consolidate with another agency, or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller. I’m not going to get rid of it entirely,” he said in Palm Beach, also commenting that he might nix the Departing of Housing and Urban Development. Not astonishing. In his 1994 Senate race, Romney proposed abolishing the Department of Education, a position which he later softened to merely shrinking the agency’s role. “We need to get the federal government out of education,” he said at a primary debate in Orlando earlier this year. He’s also often said the feds shouldn’t meddle in housing.

“I’m going to probably eliminate for high income people the second home mortgage deduction,” he said, also citing deductions for state income and property taxes as likely targets for excision. This isn’t really dynamite either: Romney backs tax reform, which in its broadest sense would lower marginal rates while ending deductions; and the deductions Romney specified are some of the least controversial. If that weren’t enough, “probably” hedges the entire proposition.

Romney also told donors he’s interested in a Republican version of the DREAM Act, legislation proposed by Democrats to help some upstanding illegal immigrants gain residency status. He was likely referring to a proposal floated by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, an understandable nod to a Florida politician and highly touted vice presidential prospect. Again, Romney was noncommittal in his remarks.

None of this is to suggest Romney’s comments weren’t newsworthy. Anything that gives us a clearer picture of how he might govern is worthwhile. As Michael Scherer writes, it might even help him emerge from his shell. But these particular closed-door tidbits are seriously vanilla. And that fact is probably the least surprising thing about the incident. Like Obama, Romney is serially cautious.

In a Fox News outtake recently leaked to Gawker by a (now ex) employee, Romney bantered with Sean Hannity between interview segments, both unaware the clip would end up online. The juiciest dish: Romney’s wife has horses and rides dressage, a topic so guarded that Ann Romney talked to the Washington Post about it for a big story in March. The rest of the clip played out as if all Romney could think about was what he might sound like on YouTube.

Asked if he stayed in cheap hotels to avoid bad press, Romney gave the answer any donor would want to hear. “It’s not the scrutiny,” he said. “You can either spend your money on ads or you can spend it on hotel rooms. I’d rather spend it on ads.”

He declined changing ties mid-interview, which was segmented to run on two consecutive nights. “I’ll just look like a schlep [sic: we think he meant schlub] who wears the same tie two nights in a row.” Romney and Hannity even talked about the infamous clip of John Edwards primping to the tune of I Feel Pretty. “It’s one thing to do it for a second,” Romney said, “it’s another to do it for five minutes.”

This is what the modern presidential campaign requires. Every semi-public utterance will find its way into the news; every available scrap of personal history will worm its way to daylight. That’s why we end up with candidates like Romney and Obama, men of catalog-perfect families, immaculate pasts and abundant political caution. There will be lapses: Obama recently had an overly earnest exchange with Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev on a hot mic. But Romney’s weekend fundraiser barely counts. Even behind the garden wall, he’s careful.