Just when Mitt Romney was all set to reset his campaign following a Politico article that chronicled the implosion of his campaign, a video of remarks Romney made to a small group of wealthy contributors was leaked to Mother Jones. This is the quote that has the conservative right cheering and everyone else puzzled or downright outraged:
“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 ….These are people who pay no income tax.”
In sum, Romney said that 47% of voters will vote for Obama no matter what. That’s not a terribly controversial statement. 47% of voters will probably vote for Romney no matter what, too.
Claiming the 47% of voters who are dedicated to Obama pay no federal income tax is where Romney went wrong.
The assertion that a high percentage of Americans pay no tax – a claim I’ve seen framed both as “no tax at all” (which is unlikely, as it would include sales tax) and “no income tax” – is a popular conservative talking point. The theory goes, all the poor people who aren’t paying their fair share are a drain on hard-working Americans, and it’s unfair to raise taxes on any part of the population – including the rich – for the benefit of those mooching freeloaders. Ezra Klein dissects this “makers v. takers” myth in this article, which is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the truth behind the rhetoric.
The Atlantic took a look at where the majority of people who pay no income tax live, and – surprise! It’s in those red states, among the poorest in the nation, many of which nonetheless go GOP every election. These are the people who troll Twitter with hashtags like #ObamasMustGoBecause, claiming the President is a Marxist/Socialist/Communist Muslim Kenyan un-American lying piece of scum from whom the country must be retrieved, like a bone from an unruly dog. Thanks to cognitive dissonance, these voters – even the ones receiving Social Security disability and SNAP (food stamp) benefits – can hear this type of talk and *know* the speaker means “those people,” not themselves.
Except Romney really does mean them, too.
Setting aside the fact that there are many valid reasons why people don’t pay income tax – and that Bush tax policies are why so many Americans wind up paying no income tax – when Romney expresses concern about “the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government, including the record number of people who are on food stamps, nearly one in six Americans in poverty, and the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work” – he means not only those lazy, shiftless black welfare queens, he also means those poor, white, red state voters who hate Obama.
There are any number of flaws with Romney’s comments, of course. Obviously, not all Obama supporters are poor. A large percentage of Obama voters are working class, middle class, and even members of the 1%. Indeed, Obama would be foolish to rely on the poor vote, since many poor people don’t vote at all.
Moreover, Romney’s definition of “entitlements” is expansive enough to include not only programs for the poor such as welfare and food stamps, but programs that benefit the middle class and even the wealthy, such as federal college grants, federally subsidized student loans, unemployment benefits, natural disaster relief, Small Business Administration loans, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The notion that beneficiaries of these programs are simply loafers on the dole, is deeply offensive.
The political fallout from the video remains unclear. With less than 50 days left before the general election, it is impossible to call this video the game-changer many seem to hope it is. But it’s safe to say some voters will be offended by the Romney video. Perhaps not so offended that they will cast a vote for the other guy. The danger for Romney, however, is that they’ll be offended enough – and wedded enough to their “entitlements” – to choose not to vote at all.