At this point in the presidential campaign we know Mitt Romney is not necessarily at his best when interacting with audiences or reporters in unscripted appearances. Though the wonkish candidate can be an effective when he has the time to apply his formidable powers of analysis and management skills to a problem, speaking off the cuff can lead to trouble. It did this afternoon when a woman asking a question at a campaign rally said President Obama was guilty of treason and Romney failed to disassociate himself from the accusation.
“We have a president right now who is operating outside the construction of our Constitution,” the woman asked Romney during a town hall in Euclid, Ohio. “And I do agree he should be tried for treason. But I wanna know what you are going to be able to do to help restore balance between the three branches of government and what you’re going to be able to do to restore our Constitution in this country?”
While Romney later told reporters at the event that he did not agree Obama should be tried for treason, he did not say that when answering the woman with a response that centered on his reverence for the Constitution. This will allow the Obama campaign to hit Romney for refusing to put any distance between himself and those on the right with over-the-top views of the president. Rather than swiftly reprove the woman and tell her that disagreements on the issues should not be criminalized, Romney provided Democrats with some fodder for their effort to portray the GOP as a band of extremists. While this moment is hardly a major gaffe and was quickly corrected by the candidate himself, it does show once again that Romney is vulnerable when forced to think on his feet in public.
The comparison with a similar moment in 2008 when a questioner told John McCain that Obama was an Arab is instructive. The feisty McCain reproved that questioner and then moved on. While some on the right will claim that such gentlemanly behavior didn’t help McCain win, Romney cannot afford to allow himself to play into the Obama campaign’s hands and help them paint him as too weak to stand up to marginal elements in his party.
Republicans will complain with some justice that President Obama has led the way with efforts to demonize the Republicans and the Tea Party movement. They will also note that the president’s misstatements never generate the same heat caused by Romney’s gaffes. But if Republicans haven’t figured out by now that they are playing on a field that tilts left, it’s about time they woke up. Yet even with these factors acknowledged, it must be admitted that Obama has rarely found himself in this sort of a tangle, largely because even when he was just a candidate four years ago, he did not engage in such exchanges with the public except with hand-picked audience members and with his trusty teleprompter in front of him. Until Romney learns to think faster, his campaign is going to have to learn to limit his exposure to moments such as these.