By Bob Cesca: I'm old enough to remember quite clearly the 1992 campaign. Seeing as how I was a political science major and 1992 was the first presidential election in which I could vote, I wrote extensively for my campus newspaper in support of Paul Tsongas and, eventually, Bill Clinton. Four years earlier, I'm semi-ashamed to admit that I was a Republican and supporter of George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign (my youthful indiscretion) so I enjoyed a small bit of insight into how Republicans think and, specifically, the potential flaws in the Bush style, especially when matched up against a juggernaut underdog campaign like Clinton's.
Bush 41, who had already spent 12 years in the White House, had the potential to sound out-of-touch with middle class life, and, when confronted, he had a tendency to get, well, snotty. If he wasn't careful, he could fall into such a trap and it would only bolster Clinton's chances.
An infamous news story from 1992 illustrated Bush's inability to connect with "regular people" -- in fact, it made him seem hilariously out of touch with familiar technology. At a campaign stop, Bush appeared to be fascinated by a super market bar-code scanner. A report in the New York Times by Andrew Rosenthal described the president as "amazed" by the familiar device. How did the pretty red laser beam guess the correct price of a half-gallon carton of milk?! Incredible! Now, to be fair, Snopes has declared this story to be "False," citing other reports that didn't necessarily describe Bush as having "a look of wonder" flickering across his face. However, there's videotape of the event and he certainly looks confounded by the space-age miracle price-knower food beam -- something most Americans had been familiar with for years.
Regardless of the story's veracity, it's locked into American political canon now as a example of what not to do if you're trying to appeal to regular people.
Yesterday, Mitt Romney's seemingly innocuous remark about airplane windows could be slotted into the same category as Bush 41's stupified wonderment at the check out line.
In case you missed it, Romney was asked about Mrs. Romney's mishap in which the cabin of her airplane filled with smoke in mid-flight. Romney replied, "When you have a fire in an aircraft, there's no place to go, exactly, there's no -- and you can't find any oxygen from outside the aircraft to get in the aircraft, because the windows don't open. I don't know why they don't do that. It's a real problem."
He doesn't know why "they" don't allow the windows to be opened in the event of a cabin fire. The windows of an airplane. Ostensibly cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet and 500 miles per hour. Yeah, why not roll down a few windows -- especially if it's raining! What could possibly go wrong? Get to work on that, airplane people!
But that's not the only stumble from Romney in the last 48 hours. On 60 Minutes, Romney was asked about affordable access to health care.
QUESTION: Does the government have a responsibility to provide health care to the 50 million Americans who don’t have it today?
ROMNEY: Well, we do provide care for people who don’t have insurance, people — we — if someone has a heart attack, they don’t sit in their apartment and die. We pick them up in an ambulance, and take them to the hospital, and give them care. And different states have different ways of providing for that care.
It goes without saying this is a much larger problem than the airplane windows nonsense. Sending uninsured people to emergency rooms for medical attention is a huge reason why health care costs are exponentially skyrocketing. In general, people who don't have insurance certainly don't have the money to afford to pay for medical attention out of pocket. So when they get the insanely expensive bill from the hospital, they have a tendency to, you know, not pay it. The hospital loses money and has to increase prices to offset the lost revenue. If everyone is insured, however, medical bills are paid and providers don't have to jack up prices to compensate for non-payment debacles.
And you know what? Romney knows this. He's made this exact argument against emergency room care many, many times. He just chose to lie about it on national television because he's undisciplined, awkward and desperate to escape his own record as a health care reformer.
Furthermore, anyone who's ever been to the emergency room because they couldn't afford standard medical care knows that you can't just walk in, get treated and leave without a bill. They also know, on some level, that if a hospital loses money, it has to compensate for its losses somehow. Again, Romney seems out of touch with working class Americans, not to mention basic loss mitigation in business.
In the grand scheme of things, and at a different juncture in his campaign, these remarks might be non-issues. If he were enjoying a healthier campaign, people might walk on by without a second glance. But Romney's up to his eyeballs in his own crapola and any gaffe or glitch is going to be amplified times a thousand. People can smell the rank odor of political death from a mile away. When an all pro quarterback throws a couple of interceptions, he's just having a bad day. When a crappy quarterback is picked off, it's observed through a prism of other failures and they're swept up in an inescapable vortex of disaster. And they fail. Right or wrong, there's a perception that this happened to President Carter. It also happened to George H.W. Bush. Neither man could extricate himself from his respective crash-and-burn narratives and even the most minor gaffes added fuel to the fire.
One thing is for sure: if Romney makes similar mistakes in the debates beginning next week, he will have absolutely engaged in the political equivalent of opening an airplane window in mid-flight.