Former President Jimmy Carter hasn't been involved with electoral politics for some time now, so perhaps he didn't realize the significance of his remarks.
Asked for his thoughts on a Romney presidency in an interview Wednesday with MSNBC, Carter said that while "he'd rather have a Democrat," he would be "comfortable" with Mr. Romney as president because, as he put it, "I think Romney has shown in the past – in his previous years as a moderate or progressive – that he was fairly competent as a governor and also running the Olympics." He also complimented Romney as "a good, solid family man."
We're sure (well, we think we're sure) that Carter meant all this as an above-the-partisan-fray commentary, befitting a former president. But it was not, shall we say, exactly on-message.
In fact, from the Obama campaign's perspective, Carter's remarks couldn't have been more poorly timed – since they came at a point when Democrats have been trying to move away from the "Mitt Romney is a flip-flopper" message in favor of a "Mitt Romney is waaaay to the right of most Americans" theme.
The reasons for this pivot are clear: While Romney's past moderate positions during his tenure as Massachusetts governor made for some rough going during the Republican primary battle, they're likely to be an asset in the general election, when candidates need to appeal to centrist swing voters.
And the "flip-flopper" image – while it hurts Romney's overall likabability – could actually help inoculate him against charges that he's an extreme right-winger. If voters believe Romney's policy positions are formed out of political opportunism, rather than conviction, then it's not hard for them to believe that many of the stands he took during the primary fight weren't reflective of what he really believes.
Carter underscored this point exactly in the interview, saying Romney has "gone to the extreme right-wing positions on some very important issues in order to get the nomination." He then added: "What he'll do in the general election, what he'll do as president, I think, is different."
Ultimately, what made Carter's remarks so potentially damaging is that – like all good gaffes – they conveyed an essential truth. Many Democrats, throughout this campaign, have tended to view Romney as more "acceptable" than most of his GOP opponents. They don't particularly like him, but they don't find him truly scary. In fact, back when Texas Gov. Rick Perry first jumped into the race – and was leading in the polls – some Democrats openly talked about easing up on Romney, who seemed a far less frightening alternative to Mr. Perry, should the GOP eventually win the White House. (Of course, that's also how many Democrats felt about George W. Bush – who ran as a "compassionate conservative" – before he took office. And we all know how that turned out.)
The danger for Obama is that if Democrats aren't scared by Romney – and are feeling less enthused about Obama – they may not be motivated to turn out.