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What's wrong with Romney the candidate

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
updated 10:23 PM EDT, Tue September 18, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: Romney comment about the "47-percenters" inexplicable at first
  • She says Romney views the world from the point of view of a business executive
  • Romney was telling audience what he thought they wanted to hear, she says
  • Borger: Romney views electoral politics as "what he has to do to get into office and fix things"

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is CNN's chief political analyst, appearing regularly on shows such as "AC360˚" "The Situation Room," and "State of the Union."

(CNN) -- In watching Mitt Romney's painful -- and self-destructive -- gaffe about the "47 percenters," it at first seemed inexplicable, as if the man was writing off half of the electorate.

Never mind that the self-declared "victims" he's talking about include seniors (who actually voted Republican in 2010) and veterans (many of whom might be inclined to vote for the GOP). Or that they're also people who work hard and pay their payroll taxes, and might be getting some tax benefits for their children.

So what is it about Mitt Romney, who should know these things -- and probably does -- that makes him so gaffe-prone? Another way to ask the question: Why does a smart man say such stupid things?

iReport: I'm the 47% but - You're WRONG Mitt Romney!

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

I have a theory about this. In spending a lot of time this year thinking about Romney -- and speaking with those who know him the best, politically and personally while reporting a CNN documentary -- this much appears to be true: Romney has a businessman's approach to politics. Which means: He sizes up a situation (or an audience). He figures out what he needs to do to cut the deal. Then he does it, and expects it to work.

Ergo, Romney speaks to a group of conservative GOP fat cats, and tells them what he thinks they want to hear so they will cough up the dough. Belief is almost beside the point. He was closing the deal.

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Who are the 47%?

Here's something to know: While Romney was born into politics, he's not a natural-born politician. His father may have been a three-term Michigan governor, but he told his son to go into business first. So he did. And now Romney is a numbers guy who came to the ideological part of politics late. And it shows, especially when you are asking voters to trust what you believe to become president.

Some politicians are hatched out of strong loyalty to a cause or a party. Romney is a businessman who came to politics out of a strong sense of duty -- and belief in his own ability to repair what's broken. Getting elected is what you have to do so you can do what you're good at: fixing things.

(In an odd way, kind of like President Obama, who also believes getting elected is what you have to do so you can do what you're good at: transforming things.)

Romney has had much success painting the self-portrait as a Mr. Fix-it. While he couldn't defeat Ted Kennedy, he did become the governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts in 2002, running as a pro-choice moderate.

Opinion: How Romney really feels about Republicans

Once in office, though, when confronted with the difficult issue of abortion -- and looking at a presidential bid in the ever more conservative GOP -- he flipped, explaining to me that it was a matter of conscience, tempered by the reality of political power. "I realized what sounded good in a campaign, when I actually became the governor and would be the person who would sign a piece of legislation which could take human life -- I simply couldn't do that," he told me.

But there's no doubt about it: Romney had to move to the right to try and get the nomination, so he did in the 2008 campaign. And he did it again in 2012.

In trying to explain Romney's jujitsu, former adviser Alex Castellanos told me that Romney's journey on social issues was the journey of a businessman who "mainly looked at governing as an economic proposition, all of a sudden confronting some social issues as a mature adult responsible for human life. And so he did evolve there."

Fast-forward to the "severely conservative" candidate of the 2012 primaries. And to the latest fundraiser chat in which Romney says half of the American public believes it has been victimized, and the government needs to take care of them.

CNNMoney: Romney's '47%

All of which leads to this question: Does Romney believe any of this stuff?

In the end, it's hard to know.

But I'll subscribe to a theory advanced by David Brooks in The New York Times today: that Romney is a "decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not -- some sort of cartoonish government-hater."

Maybe that's what Romney thought he needed to be to cut the deal. But the problem is, presidential politics isn't just business. It's personal.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.

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