The liberal news organization Mother Jones caused quite a stir this week by releasing a surreptitious video recording of Mitt Romney's off-the-cuff remarks at a May fundraiser. In the controversial part of his comments, Romney predicted that 47 percent of the electorate will vote to re-elect President Obama "no matter what," because they are dependent on government and pay no income taxes.
A number of analysts have weighed in on the technical problems with Romney's comments. For instance, while it's true that 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes, nearly every working American pays payroll taxes. Also, the 47 percent aren't necessarily the same people who receive government benefits, nor are they all likely to vote for Obama.
Statistics aside, a lot of conservatives have defended Romney's basic argument that too many Americans have become overly dependent on government for their livelihood. Though we'd agree about dependency being a problem, Romney is tackling the issue from the wrong perspective.
Traditionally, when conservatives discuss the dangers of the welfare state, they argue that the culture of dependency has been most destructive for those who rely too heavily on government. It robs them of their dignity and necessarily forces them to surrender freedoms to a central authority.
Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, has articulated the argument in precisely this way. In his 2010 "Roadmap for America's Future," Ryan wrote: "More ruinous in the long run is the extent to which the 'safety net' has come to enmesh more and more Americans -- reaching into middle incomes and higher -- so that growing numbers have come to rely on government, not themselves, for growing shares of their income and assets. By this means, government increasingly dictates how Americans live their lives; they are not only wards of the state, but also its subjects, increasingly directed in their behavior by the government's 'compassion.' "
Republicans lose when they write off people's votes -- including the votes of those who are dependent on government. They win when they talk about an America in which those who currently buy groceries with food stamps can rise out of poverty and one day do so with their own money. In contrast to Romney's defeatist tone -- "[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives." -- Ronald Reagan tried to appeal to as many voters as possible. He consistently made the case that conservative economic policies benefit all Americans by fostering economic growth and creating jobs.
The release of this video is not likely to be as big a disaster to the Romney campaign as the liberal mainstream media would like everyone to believe. But Romney's comments reflect a lack of confidence in his own ability to sell the benefits of conservative economic policy to a broader electorate. It's time for Romney to draw from his younger running mate's wisdom and sell the very American dream of financial independence and responsibility to all 100 percent of Americans.