Mitt Romney gaffe monster: Why does he misspeak?

Mitt Romney often says stuff that makes him seem like J. Thurston Romney III. Recently he put his wife in several Cadillacs that were undoubtedly purchased from his NASCAR team-owning friends.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a town hall meeting at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio, Wednesday.

Why does Mitt Romney so often get tangled up by his own words like he’s trapped in jungle underbrush?

It happened again Wednesday during an interview with the Ohio News Network. Asked whether he supports the Blunt amendment – legislation that would exempt religiously-affiliated employers from providing employees with contraception – Mr. Romney said he didn’t. Then he pivoted to attack Rick Santorum, saying he didn’t believe campaigns needed to interfere in the relationships of husbands and wives.

The problem is that Romney does support the Blunt amendment. That’s a GOP given, since it would overturn an Obama administration health-care mandate. Within hours, Romney was on the Howie Carr radio show doing a mea culpa.

“I didn’t understand the question. Of course I support the Blunt amendment ... I think every Republican is supporting it,” said Romney.

We’ll judge this as a gaffe, not a flip-flop. Romney wasn’t against the bill before he was for it – he was against it all the time, but that wasn’t what was coming out of his mouth.

Why does he misspeak so often, or say stuff that makes him seem like J. Thurston Romney III? If he’s not putting his wife in several Cadillacs that were undoubtedly purchased from his NASCAR team-owning friends, he’s betting Rick Perry $10,000 that corporations are people, my friend. Or something like that.

Well, we’ve got a couple of theories, above and beyond the obvious one that campaigning for president for years on end is tiring.

His mouth is faster than his brain. 

Watch the Ohio News Network interview, and it seems like Romney has already moved past the actual question and is setting up to go after Mr. Santorum. His mouth is moving, but his brain is still formulating anti-Rick stuff. Anybody who’s appeared on TV can understand this phenomenon. You’re not there to have a discussion. You’re there to move from one-liner to talking point, and back.

There’s a technical neurology term for this, by the way. It’s called “Mouth-moving-faster-than-brainitis.”

He babbles. 

Some of Romney’s other verbalosities have come when he’s trying to fill empty space. A voter or interviewer will ask an open-ended question, and just sit there, and Romney feels compelled to say something. It’s an old reporter’s trick: don’t ask questions, just stare at the person you’re grilling. You’d be amazed at how many people just start rattling away.

He suffers under the Imperious Curse. 

OK, this is our editor’s theory: Somebody else is controlling Romney and gleefully forcing him to say unfortunate things. In the Harry Potter world, there’s something called an “Imperious Curse,” in which you control another person’s thoughts. It’s like that. Hmm, who would do that? Who reads a lot, is himself verbally dexterous, and beams like a happy kid whenever Romney blurts out something bad? Gingrich!!

Not every pundit thinks Romney’s gaffes are unusually numerous, or that big a problem.

“I don’t want to say that stuff is irrelevant, especially in primary elections where there’s so little to differentiate the candidates in the first place, but the truth is that there’s a lot more to being a good politician than sounding like one,” wrote political scientist and blogger Jonathan Bernstein yesterday in the Washington Post.

Romney’s political skills are underrated, according to Mr. Bernstein. The former Massachusetts governor is good at raising money and organizing allies and political networks. He’s also generally molded his policy positions to what the primary electorate wants.

If Romney wins the nomination and loses the general election, his gaffes will be magnified in retrospect. If he becomes president they’ll be minimized.

“He’s not a great politician. But he’s a good one,” added Bernstein on his own A Plain Blog About Politics.

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