Mitt Romney and the 47 Percent

A videotape of Mitt Romney???s remarks during a private reception in May has suddenly surfaced, courtesy of the liberal Mother Jones magazine, in which Romney says the following in response to a question about his campaign strategy:

???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???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 convince 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.???

(Emphases mine.)  A firestorm of anger and snide satisfaction erupted across the mainstream media and liberal blogosphere last night, crowing that this was the gaffe to end all gaffes, in which the heartless plutocrat Baron Vladimir Mitt Romney Harkonnen finally revealed his contempt for the Little People, who the noble and selfless incumbent President loves so very much.

Writing at the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza described this as ???Mitt Romney???s darkest hour,??? although he was willing to allow that ???declaring the race over ??? as some people will do in the next 48 hours ??? is a mistake.???

Despite the hyperventilating headline, and his willingness to push the media-herd action line that Romney???s comments on the Obama disaster in the Middle East was some sort of gaffe, Cillizza???s assessment of the political impact of the freshly-leaked Romney video sounds about right: it will dominate the news cycle for a day or two (particularly since the media herd is desperately looking for anything to discuss, other than mounting evidence of Obama Administration negligence leading up to the September 11 embassy attacks), and this new media action line will dispirit nervous Republicans who already thought the Romney campaign wasn???t firing on all cylinders.

Cillizza also notes that epic campaign blunders tend to have less impact on the race than pundits and news junkies assume they will.  Obama???s infamous ???bitter clingers??? line leaps to mind as an example.  ???It???s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,??? candidate Obama said at a San Francisco fundraiser, referring to people in ???small towns in Pennsylvania??? and ???a lot of small towns in the Midwest.???  And those remarks were exposed to the public almost as soon as Obama made them, rather than coming from a four-month-old videotape kept under wraps until it was time to launch a political hit.

Obama???s ???bitter clingers??? line was far more insulting and contemptuous than anything Romney said, using even the most unfriendly interpretation of Romney???s remarks ??? which, of course, media analysts will do.  They???ll also be happy to play up Romney???s ???gaffe??? far more than they ever did with Obama.  Less than a day later, I would wager Romney???s video has already been screened and quoted more often by mainstream media outlets than Barack Obama???s ???bitter clingers??? video has been shown over the past four years.  Journalists sometimes try to protect themselves from charges of media bias by claiming they really do report on stories they???re accused of suppressing, but that defense ignores the power of emphasis and repetition.  A passing mention in the back pages of newspapers and bottom hours of newscasts is nothing compared to saturation coverage extending over a full news cycle, plus lots of call-backs later in the campaign season.

This difference should not be lost on any Republican tempted to forget that he must watch every word he says carefully, every single time he speaks, even if he thinks he???s addressing a room filled with enthusiastic supporters.  At this point, no Republican candidate should be surprised to learn he has a far smaller margin of error than his Democrat opponent, particularly when the media feels something approaching romantic love for that opponent.

As for what Romney actually said, his analysis of political reality is right on the nose ??? uncomfortably so, which is one reason we???re hearing all this ???darkest hour??? stuff.  It has often been reported that the population of truly uncommitted voters is exceptionally small during this election.  In essence, we???re watching the same media figures who have spent months telling us Obama???s base is locked in at 47 percent howl in outrage because Mitt Romney just said Obama???s base is locked in at 47 percent.

Of course, what makes this a four-alarm media fire is Romney???s reason for the loyalty of the left-wing base: they don???t pay income taxes, so they???re not personally excited about tax-cut proposals, and it???s easy to get them worked up by attacking all efforts to reform America???s job-killing tax regime as ???tax cuts for the rich.???  This is another on-the-nose observation that the media could probably find tape of Obama or his top advisors making, if they were interested in looking.

Granted, there are various ways for people to reach zero income tax liability, and those people pay plenty of other taxes, but wandering off on such tangents misses the point of Romney???s remark ??? it was, explicitly, a political analysis, not an economic policy discussion.  Much of the tax burden carried by people who don???t pay income taxes is invisible, by design.

They don???t know about the layers of corporate tax built into the price of every product they buy, or the cost of regulations and mandates, which are taxes by other names.  Most working people don???t even think about the taxes withheld from their paychecks, which is one of the reasons America???s income tax slid smoothly and quickly from a small levy on the super-rich to a titanic growth-crushing burden that devours millions of hours of productivity just for compliance??? and still doesn???t harvest enough loot to cover Washington???s extravagant spending.  A large volume of people in this country see themselves exactly the way Romney described them: they don???t think they???re paying much in the way of income taxes, so opposing tax cuts for other people is their default position.

What really got Romney into trouble is the ???my job is not to worry about those people??? line.  When I heard it the first time, my initial response was to describe it as ???inelegant.???  I had to chuckle when Romney himself used exactly the same term in a press conference he called to address the story last night.  Most media outlets seem uninterested in showing Romney???s full press conference ??? they???re mostly posting edited version of the conference that omit Romney???s strong prepared remarks, and relay only the subsequent Q&A session.  ABC News is an honorable exception:

As Romney noted, the entire quote was part of a political discussion, and when he said ???my job is not to worry about those people,??? he was very clearly referring to his campaign strategy: there???s no point in worrying about winning their votes, because he probably can???t.  Which is more or less what Obama was saying in his ???bitter clingers??? remarks from 2008, except that Obama said the reasons certain people were unlikely to vote for him included religious fanaticism and xenophobia.

Romney is also right to ask for the entire tape of his comments at the May fundraiser to be released, instead of just selected snippets.  The Washington Post transcribed more of those selected passages, and they make it abundantly clear Romney was offering a blunt discussion of campaign strategy.  Here???s another quote: ???We speak with voters across the country about their perceptions. Those people I told you???the five to six or seven percent that we have to bring onto our side???they all voted for Barack Obama four years ago.  So, and by the way, when you say to them, ???Do you think Barack Obama is a failure???? they overwhelmingly say no.  They like him.  But when you say, ???Are you disappointed that his policies haven???t worked???? they say yes.  And because they voted for him, they don???t want to be told that they were wrong, that he???s a bad guy, that he did bad things, that he???s corrupt.  Those people that we have to get, they want to believe they did the right thing, but he just wasn???t up to the task.???

For better or worse, that???s perfectly in keeping with the strategy behind the Republican National Convention this year, and it agrees with the analysis of many observers on both Left and Right.  We???re watching a ???scandal??? narrative brewed up around a Republican candidate discussing political strategy in no-nonsense terms with a conservative audience, and his ???bombshell??? thoughts on the political position of the Forty-Seven Percent are really no different than the way Democrats view them.

We live in a ???progressive??? world where an increasingly small percentage of Americans pay most of the burden of government??? and they are routinely excoriated for their reluctance to pay even more.  Dependency on government really is creeping further into the ???middle class,??? as part of a long-term strategy to make them vote exactly the way Romney described them.  And everyone is paying a truckload of taxes they can???t even see, making the perception of ???progressive??? taxation and benefits even more powerful than the mathematical reality.

If any of that bothers you, you absolutely must vote for Mitt Romney in 2012.  If none of it troubles you, there???s little chance you were going to vote for him anyway.  It really shouldn???t bother anyone to hear him offer confirmation that he understands this.  The American electorate is not well-served by moving an increasing volume of our political discussion off-limits.  Making everyone afraid to discuss such a wide range of subjects increases the sense that we’re locked on cruise control as we approach the edge of the fiscal cliff.