Mitt Romney: Is the gaffe really a gaffe?

Mitt Romney in Manchester, New Hampshire. 10 Jan 2012 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Light-hearted talk about firing people might suggest that Romney is out of touch.

You have to be very wary when politicians are being accused of making "gaffes".

They are often nothing of the sort, a mountain made out of a molehill by reporters desperate for a story.

But sometimes the furore tells a bigger story.

Mitt Romney is being accused of making two gaffes. Both are about firing or being fired.

Let's look at the least serious first.

He said that "a couple of times" he has worried about being given a pink slip - in other words, worried about being sacked.

This only seems to be a gaffe in the sense that his campaign can't pinpoint when that might be.

The other is more serious. He said: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me".

Out of context

The idea of a politician saying he likes firing people, when so many live in fear of losing their jobs, is toxic. It puts him on the wrong side of the "them and us" divide.

But it is quite clear Romney's remarks were ripped out of context. He was talking about changing health insurance companies when they are not doing a good job.

He is using the phrase "firing people" as a folksy way of saying that it is good to be able to choose between companies, and dispense with the services of one if it is not doing a good job.

But it is crass for Romney in particular to use the F word.

The image his enemies - inside and outside his own party - want to create is of an out-of-touch patrician who made his money asset-stripping companies, earning millions by sacking thousands.

If we are going to use cliches, perhaps this was a "blunder" rather than a "gaffe".

Talking about firing people, as a sort of a joke, suggests that Romney is out of touch.

It is insensitive but it is also politically clumsy, strategically foolish, to use a word that conjures up questions about his own past.

However well he does tonight, opponents will make sure those words echo down until the autumn.