Mitt Romney put his foot in it over the weekend by using the term “tar baby” to refer to the nascent engineering problems with the Big Dig project in the state of Massachusetts, which he presently governs (see here). Romney told a crowd of about 100 supporters attending an event in Iowa, “The best thing politically would be to stay as far away from that tar baby as I can.” AP says Romney “said inaction would have been even worse.”
Politics is a business in which words mean things—sometimes. The dynamics of what words mean and when they are significant are tied up in a complex relationship between official definitions, unofficial definitions, the context of the utterance (or not—taking speech out of context is a favorite tactic), who heard it, what other political issues and problems you are grappling with at the moment, how popular you are, what the press thinks of you (or maybe just what they think of your party) at the moment, etc.
Some goofy statements made by politicians have become part of our national lexicon. Think of Bill Clinton’s answer to a prosecutor’s question where Clinton said, “That depends on what the meaning of “is,” is.” Think of Dan Quayle’s scripted gaffe when he prompted a schoolboy spelling the word ‘potato’ to add an ‘e’ at the end of the word.
As noted in the cited Wikipedia reference, the term “tar baby” can mean a “sticky situation from which it is difficult to extract one's self.” But, “It has been used as a derogatory term for dark skinned people (such as African Americans in the United States ...)” So it should not be surprising that at least some people took offense at Romney’s use of the term.
The AP reports that “black Republican and civil rights activist” Larry Jones called the remark “inappropriate.” He went on to say that Romney has demonstrated “arrogance” rather than presidential capacity. I could find no reference regarding which candidate Jones supports (there are a lot of guys in Iowa named Larry Jones, so I couldn’t nail this down), but that could be a factor in Jones’s commentary.
It seems clear that Romney intended no offense and did not consider the term to be a racial epithet. But to some people that do consider it such, Romney’s ignorance of that fact is almost as bad as intending it as a racial remark. The question is how much this remark will harm Romney’s presidential chances.
Politicians often say dumb things, but most of the time we cut them slack, or the press doesn’t bother to report them. (Don’t fool yourself. This happens to politicians of all persuasions.) It is when the politician is controversial at the moment that we don’t cut them slack.
When Arizona Governor Evan Mecham ignorantly used the term ‘pickaninny’ to describe black children, he was already in hot water over a number of actions that appeared callous, and even racist. When he took actions that enraged some important people in his own party and got caught red handed demonstrating how cronyism worked in the political ‘good old boys club’ in his state, he became a very unsympathetic character that ended up being impeached. His racial epithet was just one of the drumbeats in the din that led to his impeachment.
Mitt Romney is a fairly popular guy among those that know who he is. He is not at present an unsympathetic character. He does not appear to be corrupt (at least by the standards applied to politicians), and has even been derided as being too perfect. It is possible that his comment might even make him more sympathetic with voters, as it could lend a certain sense of ‘humanness’ to his polished veneer.
I doubt that this one comment will lend any significant traction to Romney’s detractors—at least for now. If he were to mess up more often or prove himself to the public to be a certified jerk, the comment would easily be dredged up and used against him with more effect. At present, most people will think nothing of it.