The hidden camera moment of this election cycle comes not from the long-awaited Michelle Obama Whitey tape, but from a fundraiser for the Republican nominee.
Mother Jones’ David Corn has obtained video – catnip for 24-hour news networks – of Romney speaking at a gathering of high-dollar donors, wherein he gave his strategy for the election. In so doing, he basically describe everyone disinclined to vote for him as a moocher living off the government dole.
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean the President starts off with 48, 49, he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince is the five to ten percent in the center that are independents. That are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not…
Mother Jones actually made quite a few clips of this talk available, and promises more throughout the week. Romney told the crowd that had his father “been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot of winning this.” He acknowledged that he was “born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you can have: which is to get born in America,” which is actually a tacit acknowledgment that something more than hard work, specifically random circumstances of birth, plays a role in the relative success or failure of individuals. Romney boasted that some of his consultants also worked for Benjamin Netanyahu, as if to impress the big-money crowd. Previewing his resistance to describing what he would do if elected, he told the supporters, “discussion on a whole series of important topics typically doesn’t win elections.” He added that markets will rise if the public believes he will win and fall if they think President Obama will win.
But the highlighted comments will draw the most scrutiny. Greg Sargent believes that Romney conflated an electoral argument, about how there are only a narrow set of persuadable voters in the middle of the electorate, with a well-worn argument on the right about how 47% of all Americans don’t pay income tax. He’s right, but that argument has been long conflated by the conservative right. They seem to truly believe that the only people who would not recognize their brilliance must live off the federal teat, must want government to provide for their every need. Liberals are reliant, conservatives are self-reliant. Period. Intellectual conservative leader Rush Limbaugh just the other day said that Obama placed more people on welfare rolls in a deliberate strategy to turn out their grateful votes.
It should be stated that the idea that 47% of Americans pay no income tax is not true. It’s exaggerated by various tax rebates from the economic downturn, and it doesn’t take into account the wide range of taxes Americans do pay, including sales taxes, gas taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, local taxes, excise taxes, etc. Heck, buying absolutely anything produced by a corporation means that you’re paying some percentage of their corporate taxes. In addition, the statistic that 47% of Americans pay no income tax is completely misleading, considering how many Americans draw no income – the retired, for example, or children, or the unemployed.
But it’s also a terrible statistic to overlay onto a theory about voting. Because the poor, the most likely subset of those who “pay no income tax” thanks to rebates like the Earned Income Tax Credit, vote in lower numbers than their more wealthy counterparts. Welfare programs and those that serve the poor are consistently among those most threatened by cutbacks, precisely because they don’t have the power of millions of voters who champion those causes, nor do they have the financial muscle that animates so much of our politics. So the entire theory is wrong.
The other part of this is that everyone is “dependent upon government.” In fact, that was the point behind the awkwardly phrased “you didn’t build that” passage. We depend on government for roads and water pipelines and electricity infrastructure and law enforcement personnel and a whole host of other pieces. We also pay for those elements, and we entrust those we hire to execute it all, so it doesn’t take up too much of our time. That’s a short version of the social contract, and to characterize everyone “reliant” on government as a victim suggests you don’t actually understand it.
I don’t really know what Romney “really” thinks about these issues. He was putting on a show for some rich donors. But we can be fairly sure that these rich people believe in this “All Democrats are moochers” theory of politics, or at least that Republican office-seekers think they will be flattered by such a theory.
Incidentally, the Obama campaign wasted no time responding to this. Campaign Manager Jim Messina said in a statement, “It’s shocking that a candidate for President of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare to a group of wealthy donors that half the American people view themselves as ‘victims,’ entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to take ‘personal responsibility’ for their lives. It’s hard to serve as president for all Americans when you’ve disdainfully written off half the nation.”