DENVER — Many Republicans collectively groaned Wednesday at news that their former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the same guy who seemed to disparage the 47 percent of Americans who don’t pay taxes in a private speech to rich donors, attributed his loss to “gifts” President Barack Obama has bestowed on minorities and the poor.
The now widely-reported remarks came during — what else? — a conference call with top donors and only further solidified the image of Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat, the enduring characterization of the candidate that likely tipped the election back to a beleaguered but more likeable incumbent.
But Romney’s comment, it turns out, is a gift in and of itself — a gift to the next generation of GOP leaders looking to carry the torch of a bruised party facing a leadership void and a long-term demographics problem.
It’s an chance to the one thing Republicans must do and do quickly: turn the page.
Louisisna Gov. Bobby Jindal, just named as the new director of the Republican Governor’s Association, was quick to swat Romney’s assertion away.
“I absolutely reject that notion,” said Jindal, who was a surrogate for Romney’s campaign, as he opened the RGA conference in Las Vegas Thursday morning. “I think that’s absolutely wrong.
“I don’t think that represents where we are as a party and where we’re going as a party. That has got to be one of the most fundamental takeaways from this election.”
One by one, other top Republicans followed suit, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, himself, like Jindal, an oft-mentioned contender for the GOP’s nomination in 2016, gently distancing himself from Romney’s position.
“Our mission should not be to deny government benefits to people who need them,” said Rubio, who said that the GOP should work to ensure “less people need government benefits.
“I don’t want to rebut him point by point,” Rubio said when asked about Romney’s comment. “I would just say to you, I don’t believe that we have millions and millions of people in this country that don’t want to work. I’m not saying that’s what [Romney] said. I think we have millions of people in this country that are out of work and are dependent on the government because they can’t find a job.”
And on and on the GOP chorus went, with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte all echoing the Republican Party’s larger effort to quickly distance itself from its 2012 standard-bearer.
Romney’s remarks, his first publicly reported comments since Election Night, offered Republicans cover to take public shots at the former nominee, who lost an election that many conservatives felt was there for the taking, given the slow economic recovery.
But the comments offered those high-profile Republicans something more important — an easy opportunity to demonstrate an actual grip on reality and a willingness to shoot straight, to dish out the tough medicine many GOP apologists need to hear, and to show that they’ve learned the lesson many, including Romney, still choose to ignore.
As far as opportunities to score political points go, Romney’s “gifts” comment served up an easy lob, an opportunity for anyone looking to lead the GOP a slam-dunk chance to show leadership.
Romney himself, in the closing weeks of the campaign, had a similar opportunity for a so-called “Sister Souljah moment.”
When Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock ignorantly uttered some line about a pregnancy resulting from rape being “part of God’s plan”, Romney, who’d just cut a television ad endorsing Mourdock, decided to keep quiet and let the situation go away; had he stood up to Mourdock more forcefully and demanded that the ad featuring him be pulled from the air, he might have taken command of the situation and demonstrated a semblance of compassion and humanity to women voters.
Romney himself was either too afraid of push-back from social conservatives or too dense to recognize that Mourdock’s statement was actually more of a political opportunity than a landmine.
A week after the election, there’s mixed evidence that Republicans are learning the lessons of Obama’s victory and coming to grips with the country’s new demographic reality.
A RNC memo on what happened last Tuesday is clear-eyed — “demographic change is real,” the memo concludes — and many GOP leaders from Rubio to Jindal are already keenly aware of the need to transform their party’s platform and to to find more messengers who reflect the country’s demographic trends.
In Colorado, Yuma Congressman Cory Gardner, suddenly the state’s GOP standard-bearer in just his second term, gets it.
Former GOP state lawmakers Josh Penry and Rob Witwer get it.
What remains to be seen, and what may determine how well the GOP internalizes and learns from the lessons of 2012, is whether Republicans continue to defend Romney and cling to the magical thinking his campaign and worldview represent — or use his candidacy, and his final, misguided explanation of his loss as a real pivot point toward embracing reality and moving the GOP, ahem, forward.