"I like being able to fire people." It was the kind of statement, like John McCain saying he didn't know exactly how many houses he owns, that can define a candidacy. It played right into the picture that Mitt Romney's opponents, both Democratic and Republican, had been trying to paint of him: that of a heartless "vulture capitalist" who made his fortune not by job creation, but by buying companies and laying off thousands.
It made Mitt Romney look like - well, like a guy you wouldn't want to have a beer with. In a political environment where a candidate ordering orange juice instead of coffee in a diner causes pundits to call his regular-guyness into question, it's hard to see it as anything but a major gaffe.
Romney's opponents seized on the quote. Rick Santorum's criticism was somewhat mild. "I am not too sure that is a very good message to a lot of folks out there," he said. Jon Huntsman was a little more pointed: "Gov. Romney enjoys firing people, I enjoy creating jobs."
Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, started sounding like they were about to join Occupy Wall Street.
"There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business," Perry said. His campaign even made "I like being able to fire people" into a ringtone you could download from his website, no doubt bringing joy to the tiny black hearts of horrible bosses everywhere.
For his own part, Gingrich said, "I think there's a real difference between people who believe in the free market and people who go around, take financial advantage, loot companies, leave behind broken families, broken towns, people on unemployment."
A pro-Gingrich Super PAC released a video called "King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town." It called Romney a "predatory corporate raider" who "destroyed the American dream for thousands of workers and their families."
The ringtone has since been taken down, and Gingrich has backed off. "I think they're way overboard on saying he wants to fire people, he doesn't care," Gingrich said.
Whew. For a minute there, it was a little disorienting. I thought they were going to form a drum circle or something.
The Romney campaign complained that the comment had been taken out of context. Romney, they said, was talking about being able to ditch your insurance company when they're not serving you well.
They were, or course, right about the context. It was more than a little amusing, however, to hear that complaint coming from the campaign that had edited Barack Obama quoting something a Republican adviser had said about the McCain campaign ("If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose") and made it sound as if it was the president talking about his own campaign.
When confronted with that little bit of dishonesty, the Romney campaign was unapologetic. "He did say the words. That's his voice," Romney adviser Tom Rath insisted. So using the Romney campaign's own standard, the "fire people" quote was fair.
But we certainly don't want to use Mitt Romney's standard of what's fair, do we? That would be horrible. So let's look at what he actually meant.
"I don't want to live in a world where we have Obamacare telling us which insurance we have to have, which doctor we can have, which hospital we go to," Romney said at a press conference. "I believe in the setting as I described this morning where people are able to choose their own doctor, choose their own insurance company. If they don't like their insurance company or their provider, they can get rid of it."
Problem is, "Obamacare" doesn't restrict that. In fact, just the opposite. The law doesn't empower the government to pick your insurance company or your doctor. Nor does it keep you from "firing" either one. In fact, through the health care law's prohibition on denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and the setting up of insurance "exchanges" that allow people to compare different companies, the ACA actually will make changing insurance easier than the current system.
And here's the thing: Mitt Romney knows that. As I hope they will continue to remind the American public, the Obama administration based much of the act on the one championed by Romney himself in Massachusetts.
So while Mitt Romney may or may not actually enjoy firing people, his actual quote shows us one thing: We don't want to use the Romney standard of what's truthful.