Even by Mitt Romney’s gaffe-tastic standards, this was a bad one. Speaking at a Republican luncheon in Ames, Iowa over the weekend, the Massachusetts governor and would-be Republican presidential nominee referred to the Big Dig as a “tar baby” — a phrase which, though sometimes used to describe sticky situations, is also a pejorative term for African-Americans.
There's a certain just-desserts quality to this latest Romney stumble, since the governor has been unseemingly eager to fold his newfound control of the Big Dig into the whole “Turnaround” narrative. Consider the offensive quote in question: “The best thing for me to do politically is stay away from the Big Dig — just get as far away from that tar baby as I possibly can.” Mitt, that’s a load of crap. You know — and everybody watching you knows — that this is a golden opportunity: you can brag about taking control of the project, but you’ll be back in Utah (or Michigan) in a few short months, leaving the next governor to muddle through.
In addition to pointing up the governor’s fondness for shameless self-promotion, what else does this gaffe tell us? For starters, he doesn’t follow the news too closely. (Earlier this year, White House spokesman Tony Snow’s use of the “tar baby” term sparked a very public controversy.) What’s more, Romney probably doesn’t know a whole lot of black people, since, according to his spokesman, he wasn't aware the term was offensive. No big surprise there —neither Belmont, Massachusetts nor the LDS Church are teeming with African-Americans — but still worth mentioning.
Romney’s sure to embarrass himself again sometime in the next few months. In the meantime, here’s a recap of the stumbles that preceded the “tar baby” incident:
10) Cardinal error
As Romney heads to Rome for Boston archbishop Sean O’Malley’s elevation to cardinal in March, a Romney spokesperson says the two men are friends, and that the archbishop asked the governor to make the trip. But this doesn’t square with O’Malley’s account. “I’ve met him a couple times — don’t know him well,” the archbishop tells the Boston Globe. Worse, O’Malley says he didn’t invite the governor. (O’Malley’s spokesperson later says Romney did receive an invitation that “was similar to that extended to the general public.”)
9) The price is wrong
After the London subway bombings in July 2005, Romney briefly rides Boston’s T to reassure the citizenry. At a press conference beforehand, the governor incorrectly identifies the price of a subway token as $1. (It’s $1.25.)
8) What’s in a name?
During a radio appearance for the 2002 campaign, Romney forgets the name of his running mate, Kerry Healey. Explaining that Healey will help broaden the GOP ticket’s appeal, Romney says, “That is what has drawn me to Sherry.” Also, while discussing his efforts to woo conservative Democrats, Romney calls former Massachusetts governor and Reagan supporter Ed King “Frank King.”
7) He likes gay people
In 1994, while running against Ted Kennedy for the US Senate, Romney assures the Massachusetts Log Cabin Republicans that “as we seek to establish full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent.” (Remember, that opponent is Ted Kennedy. Romney gets the endorsement.) During his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Romney operatives distribute bright-pink fliers at Boston’s gay-pride festival that read: “Mitt and Kerry wish you a great Pride weekend! All citizens deserve equal rights, regardless of their sexual preference.” Two years later, during his speech at the Republican National Convention, Romney likens the threat from same-sex marriage to the menace of Islamist terrorism.
6) Not that there’s anything wrong with that
During Boston’s 2005 St. Patrick’s Day breakfast, Romney — who is Mormon, and whose great-grandfather Miles was a polygamist — jokes, “I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman . . . and a woman . . . and a woman.” The governor recycles this line during Don Imus’s 2006 St. Patrick’s Day broadcast, thereby undercutting his own campaign to convince evangelical Christians that Mormons aren’t really that weird.
5) Mission accomplished
In December 2005, announcing his intention not to seek re-election the following year, the governor basically says that everything in Massachusetts is peachy. “Frankly, what’s happened is that we got a lot more done than I expected we would,” Romney explains. “I’ve got the job done I set out to do.” Three months later, a panel appointed by Romney to study the case of Haleigh Poutre — a 12-year-old adoptee who was savagely beaten in September 2005 and nearly allowed to die, only to recover miraculously — recommends major reform of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services.