“There were a couple of times when I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip,” Mitt Romney said last month. His slip was showing. (More)

The Romney Code, Part III – Pink Slips (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looks at Mitt Romney’s too-revealing gaffes. Thursday we considered what he meant by “severely conservative.” Yesterday we probed his statement that “banks aren’t bad people.” Today we conclude with his comments about the poor and unemployed.

After the morning meeting….

I once worked in an office where we began each day with a staff meeting. After one morning’s meeting, we headed back to work, not sure how much had been bluster or whether we’d still have jobs the next week. No one spoke at first.

Then a colleague cautiously said “That was, umm, stormy.” No one replied.

A minute or so later, another colleague said “I guess he’s not satisfied with our progress on the project.” More silence.

“Let’s face it,” a third colleague finally said. “He was an a**hole.” And the conversation began.

The first colleague described the boss’ tirade with a benign euphemism: “stormy.” The second offered an accurate but sterile orthophemism. The third used a dysphemism: “a**hole.” He didn’t say that to offend the boss, who wasn’t in the room, nor to shock or offend the rest of us. Instead, he was trying to break the metaphorical ice and rebuild a sense of familiarity. His saying that implied he still trusted the rest of us not to run to the boss. Our joining in reinforced that bond. After chatting for a few minutes to unwind, we could get back to working together.

I doubt my third colleague calculated that before he spoke. While we sometimes pause to reflect before choosing how to say something, more often the words seem to emerge at the same moment we have the thought. We learn very early in life how to use euphemisms and dysphemisms. Peer acceptance – or those awkward moments when we realize we’ve said the wrong thing – teach us when each is acceptable.

“I’m Also Unemployed”

But what if you’ve always been recognized as a Leader, or a Leader’s son, and never had real peers? Then you might say something like this:

“I should tell my story,” Mr. Romney said. “I’m also unemployed.”

He chuckled. The eight people gathered around him, who had just finished talking about strategies of finding employment in a slow-to-recover economy, joined him in laughter.

“Are you on LinkedIn?” one of the men asked.

“I’m networking,” Mr. Romney replied. “I have my sight on a particular job.”

It wasn’t the first time a politician’s humor fell flat, or the last. Taken as an isolated incident, that’s all that happened. Romney’s problem is that this wasn’t an isolated incident.

“There were a couple of times I wondered if I was going to get a pink slip.”

In fact, Romney repeated almost the same mistake last month in New Hampshire:

I’ve learned what it’s like to sign the front of a paycheck not just the back of a paycheck. And to know how frightening it is to see if you can make payroll at the end of the week. These are experiences that many of you know. I know what it’s like to worry about whether you’re going to get fired. There were a couple of times I wondered if I was going to get a pink slip. And I care very deeply about the American people.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, then still a contender for the Republican nomination, pounced with the charge that Romney’s only worry about pink slips was “whether he was going to have enough of them to hand out.” And as the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent reported, Romney had an excellent golden parachute contract at Bain Capital.

While it’s true that he might have lost his job, Mitt Romney was never going to fall into the social safety net. That may be why he could say….

“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there.”

It’s true that the federal, state, and local governments combine with charities to patch together a safety net. There are exceptions, but even the “very poor” in the U.S. are rarely as impoverished as the poor in many other countries. Indeed conservatives argue that Americans needn’t worry about income inequality or the American poor, because our economic system works well enough that even our poor have refrigerators, cell phones, and cable TV. Yet that argument ignores why most of our poor still have minimally adequate housing, nutrition, and health care … because we do have a safety net.

And as Paul Krugman explains, Mitt Romney promises to cut that safety net:

Specifically, the candidate has endorsed Representative Paul Ryan’s plan for drastic cuts in federal spending – with almost two-thirds of the proposed spending cuts coming at the expense of low-income Americans. To the extent that Mr. Romney has differentiated his position from the Ryan plan, it is in the direction of even harsher cuts for the poor; his Medicaid proposal appears to involve a 40 percent reduction in financing compared with current law.

So Mr. Romney’s position seems to be that we need not worry about the poor thanks to programs that he insists, falsely, don’t actually help the needy, and which he intends, in any case, to destroy.

Us and Them

My colleague called our boss an “a**hole” to rebuild our sense of familiarity. Building or rebuilding that familiarity is often the reason we use dysphemisms, and that works by tacitly creating a structure of Us-and-Them. We employees felt rocked and uneasy after our boss’ tirade, and the subtext of my colleague’s comment was “Let’s stand together on this.”

Mitt Romney’s dysphemisms seem to have the same intent. But his ‘Us’ consists of people for whom comments like this are practical alternatives :

Because my guess is that there are about 100 or more entrepreneurs in America that have ideas for solar energy, and they’re trying to go out and get funding for their business, for their startup for their ideas. Going to venture capitalists and angels and their parents to try and get funding.

Romney’s ‘Us’ is people who “like being able to fire people” and want leaders who are “severely conservative.” People who think “corporations are people” and “banks are not bad people.” People who are “not worried about the very poor” and know venture capitalists and angels or have wealthy parents.

Romney’s ‘Us’ is other people like Mitt Romney. People whose verbal slips … are pink.

And that’s the Romney Code.


Happy Saturday!