Not recalling is worse

Last week Team Romney again seemed as if it’s not ready for the big leagues, caught off guard and unprepared for a negative story about its candidate. The campaign also failed to take advantage of an opportunity to challenge the increasingly accepted narrative that Mitt Romney is out of touch and unable to relate to the problems and challenges of everyday Americans who don’t have multiple Cadillacs or dressage horses. Even when he’s tried his hardest to relate, Romney has ended up insulting cookies or talking about friends who own football and NASCAR teams.

Recent studies show that bullying and cyberbullying are a top concern, if not the No. 1 concern, for parents of America’s school-age children. (Admittedly not a voting issue, but one that matters to them.) A 2010 survey found that 30 percent of those polled fear bullying “over kidnapping, domestic terrorism, car accidents, suicide or any other incident.” Additionally, 40 percent of teachers and school staff consider bullying a moderate or major problem in their schools, and 32 percent of students between ages 12 and 18 report being a target of bullying. Highlighting painful stories from Iowa, Georgia, Oklahoma and Mississippi, the recent film “Bully” gives personal insight into the challenges families and communities are facing, sparking a national conversation on the issue. 

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It’s estimated that 13 million children will be bullied this year, and approximately 3 million are absent from school each month because they feel unsafe at school, and 6 out of 10 American teens witness bullying at least once a day. News stories about children committing suicide or extreme acts of violence in response to bullying have become too familiar — particularly involving cyberbullying, where the bully is technologically enabled to more viscously have a persistent presence in the life of his or her victim. 

With all of that right in front of it, Team Romney could have shifted the conversation about last week’s Washington Post story about a young Mitt Romney bullying a classmate who apparently seemed out of place at the exclusive Cranbrook School he attended. Romney could have apologized and then used his personal story to convey an understanding about the challenges families and communities face as attitudes have changed from seeing bullying as a “stupid thing” to a real threat to our children’s safety and well-being. He could have done so without getting into whether or not he agrees with legislation proposed by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), or by Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.).

Instead, we got the usual “I don’t recall,” a response lawyers usually tell their clients to give so as not to get themselves into further trouble. Not even referring to the victim by name, Romney said, “I don’t recall the incident myself, but I’ve seen the reports and I’m not going to argue with that. There’s no question but that I did some stupid things when I was in high school and obviously if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.”

Bullies are unable to empathize with people who are different from them, instead using a perceived imbalance of power to harm or intimidate. A candidate whose comments continuously show a similar inability to empathize or understand by failing to acknowledge the impact of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposed budget cuts or cuts to Planned Parenthood, or why the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act matters to working Americans, doesn’t seem to have learned his lesson.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant, and co-host of POTUS/Sirius XM’s “The Flaks.”