The leaked fundraising videos currently sending shockwaves through the Romney campaign appear to settle a question that has defined Mitt Romney's 18-year political career: Is he, or isn't he a real conservative?
It hasn't always been easy to tell in the twisting, turning road that took him from center-left Massachusetts Senate candidate in 1994, to Republican Party standard-bearer in 2012. Over the years, he has offered forceful, public, and sometimes deeply personal arguments for both sides of myriad issues, including abortion, health care reform, and the very role of government. In some cases, his campaign has claimed a conversion; in others, it has carefully parsed the rhetoric to argue he never changed his mind.
But in that private equity manager's Boca Raton home captured by a blurry-lensed hidden camera — leaked in part on YouTube and then provided to Mother Jones magazine — Romney seemed to give the closest thing to a candid description of his worldview. And nothing about it fit the "Massachusetts moderate" label his Republican primary rivals tried to pin on him.
Unfettered by the presence of reporters, and speaking to a gathering of friendly, wealthy donors, Romney spoke freely over the din of clinking silverware and the murmur of dinner conversation. His cadence and rhythm were noticeably different from the more strained, sing-songy voice he gives to his scripted stump speeches, and the words came much more quickly, and less haltingly, than when he answers questions in public town hall meetings.
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," he said emphatically at the fundraiser. "All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax."
Shortly after the videos were published online Monday afternoon, the Obama campaign pounced, accusing him of having "disdainfully written off half the nation."
In a last-minute press conference held late Monday night to address the controversy, Romney dismissed the notion that the video offered any major revelations, and said it simply contained an "off-the-cuff" answer to a donor's question about how he plans to win the election. His argument against Obama's "government-centered society," he said, is not a new one, and he's always recognized that his conservative message doesn't play well with all voters
"Those who are reliant on government are not as attracted to my message of slimming down government," Romney told reporters.
But Romney's condemnation of America's entitlement society — and his assessment that Obama voters are part of the problem — fit firmly into contemporary movement conservatism, and seem to demonstrate an internalization of the Republican Party narrative about meritocratic success.
The same goes for the unapologetic defense of his own wealth that was caught on camera, a subject he typically tries to avoid on the campaign trail.
"I have inherited nothing. Everything that Ann and I have, we have earned the old-fashioned way," he told the donors, referring the fact, little-dicussed, but basically accurate, that his wealthy father offered him only slight assistance when he was a young man.
Romney even suggested that he shares the Republican base's intense suspicion of President Barack Obama's character and motives. Explaining, almost apologetically, why he hadn't publicly joined the chorus of conservatives in their mud-slinging, Romney said it was because he was trying to win independents who "don't agree with us" when it comes to the president's corruption.
"And because they voted for him, they don't want to be told that they were wrong, that he's a bad guy, that he did bad things, that he's corrupt," Romney said. "Those people that we have to get, they want to believe they did the right thing, but he just wasn't up to the task."
He made light of his own moderate-sounding, focus-grouped talking point: "They love the phrase that he's 'over his head,'" he said.
Of course, Romney could have simply been telling the room what he thought it wanted to hear. But his delivery carried none of the discomfort or scripted nature of his stump speeches, and the tone was markedly different from that of the remarks he delivers at fundraisers open to the press.
More than one pundit has already declared the videos "devastating" to Romney's candidacy, and liberals are rejoicing that the Republican has apparently revealed himself to be the right-winger they'd always claimed — and perhaps hoped — he was.
But on the right, many opinion leaders and activists are expressing relief — and even excitement — that the man they reluctantly chose to lead the conservative movement has finally revealed himself to be one of them.
In the campaign's initial response, there was little effort to apologize or walk back Romney's remarks, with spokesperson Gail Gitcho saying only that the candidate has long said "he is concerned about he growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government." She said his goal as president would be to help those people find jobs.
Several campaign officials told BuzzFeed earlier that Romney's team now sees its top priority as rallying the base, not winning the political center. The leaked videos have pushed all of Romney's chips, whether he likes it or not, into that bet.
This article has been updated.