POLITICS

Why Romney’s ’47 percent’ comments were problematic even though they won’t kill his chances

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Philip Klein

I took a break from politics to observe Rosh Hashanah yesterday, so I’m a bit late to comment on the Mitt Romney fundraiser video posted by Mother Jones that’s causing such a stir. But sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back from all the instant commentary and try to view things with a broader perspective.

A number of people 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, that doesn’t account for the payroll taxes paid by nearly every working American. Also, these 47 percent aren’t the exact same people who receive government benefits and those who will likely vote for Obama.

Statistics aside, a lot of conservatives have defended Romney for being right about the basic argument that too many Americans have become overly dependent on government for their livelihood. I’d agree about dependency being a problem. But traditionally, when conservatives have made this argument, they have explained that the culture of dependency has been destructive for those who are dependent on government by robbing them of their dignity and surrendering to the state more control over their lives. Here, for instance, is none other than Paul Ryan making the point in his 2010 “Roadmap” proposal:

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 succeed not when they write off the votes of those who are dependent on government, but speak about an America in which those who currently have to buy groceries with food stamps can rise out of poverty and one day use their own money. Instead, Romney strikes a defeatist tone. “(M)y job is not to worry about those people,” he said of the 47 percent. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Ronald Reagan always aimed for as broad an appeal as possible, consistently making the case that conservative economic policies benefit all Americans by fostering economic growth. In stark contrast, Romney laments, “Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.” John Carney made a similar point on CNBC this afternoon.

Some people have suggested the video shows that Romney, at heart, is really a conservative. But I see it as the opposite. It strikes me that Romney lacks confidence in his ability to sell a conservative economic message, because he doesn’t really believe in it. So it’s no surprise he’s been doing such a horrible job of it over the course of the campaign.

That said, I think the reports of Romney’s demise based on this tape are greatly exaggerated. I still think he’s more likely than not to lose the election, but I don’t think the surfacing of this tape will be looked back at as the reason why. As Ben Domenech put it in his email newsletter the Transom, “What helps Romney in this situation is that no one thinks they’re in the 47%. Even if they are!” The data bear this out. In April, a Gallup poll found that 93 percent of Americans believe they pay either the right amount of federal tax or too much tax, compared to just 3 percent who thought their taxes were too low.

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