Romney’s in-progress autopsy

Romney’s in-progress autopsy

Upon first glance, I really didn’t get all the fuss behind the now infamous leaked video of Mitt Romney chatting up some wealthy conservative donors. Far from anything particularly damning, the Governor’s snarky words about entitlement-dependent leeches and the like simply struck as the Republican equivalent of President Obama’s infamous “cling to their guns and religion” quip in 2008 — a cruel, over-generalized caricature of “the other side” designed to pander to base suspicions, but hardly something worth convulsing over.

Having attempted to defend Romney’s words in debates against liberals — and even conservatives — however, I’m starting to realize that his off-the-cuff remarks may actually represent one of the most damaging moments of the entire campaign. There’s been a lot of focus on one number in particular, this magical “47%” of the country whom Romney claimed “pay no income tax,” are entirely “dependent upon government” for their livelihoods, and make up the most stable, permanent faction of the Democratic base. Sweeping ideological generalizations are one thing, it seems, but to attempt to dress up one’s lazy biases with a veneer of statistics and social science is to play with a much more dangerous sort of fire.

Now, I don’t think anyone much disputes the fact that a strong faction of the Democratic base is drawn from the impoverished ranks of the American underclass. In the wake of 47%-gate, someone released this chart supposedly “proving” that the greediest recipients of government aid actually live in Red America, but of course this doesn’t mean much when you consider that these are also the states with the highest numbers of poor minorities — a group which went 86% for Obama in 2008. The question, however, is just how big and powerful this faction actually is as an overall percentage of the liberal base.

For all its inequality, America is not El Salvador, nor is the country’s partisan divide rooted in some rigid, Randian class war between moochers and Atlases. Romney’s central error was conflating the 47% of the nation whose paycheques are small enough to exempt them from income tax (but certainly not taxes, period) with the vastly narrower demographic of entirely state-dependent (as opposed to merely state-assisted) paupers or genuinely lazy and exploitative do-nothing “welfare queens” — together whom can’t possibly compose more than 15% of the total populace. And it’s not like all of them vote, anyway.

Avoiding income tax, in short, is not always a scam or failing, and opting into state programs is not a universal bad, either. As David Brooks memorably put it in a much-circulated piece, if your definition of a government freeloader is so broad as to include literally any person who receives any government help in any possible form — from war veterans to retirees on Medicare — then you’re really just denouncing the idea of a national social safety net altogether. And despite popular caricature, there aren’t actually a lot of Republican politicians willing to take their ideology that far.

In other words, what initially seemed to be an ordinary us-versus-them generalization of Democrats and Republicans can actually read just as easily as a gratingly ignorant — and even somewhat anti-American — summary of the nation and its people as a whole.

A politician is at his best when he sympathetically treats voters of the “other side” as merely misguided or bamboozled, which was arguably the case with Obama’s guns-and-religion shtick, and indeed, what Romney himself admits is his party’s best strategy for winning independents in that same leaked video. But once a candidate buys into a narrative positing that nearly half the populace is illegitimate or useless, well, we’re starting to get to a very dark and undemocratic place.

In their reaction, Democrats have admirably displayed strong insecurity towards the idea that they are simply the party of dependent leeches, and have soundly denounced the notion that their base should celebrate lax taxation or overuse of government services. We work hard too, the liberals say, and take only that which we can’t provide for ourselves. It’s a somewhat disingenuous sentiment, of course — the default progressive position in most cases is still to expand the welfare state, rather than cap it, and liberals retain an stubborn inability to even acknowledge the oft-documented reality that unemployment and poverty can, in fact, be as much the product of crappy, voluntary life choices as the sinister machinations of corporations and plutocrats.

Still, if Romney’s words are provoking a “national conversation” of sorts, it’s nice to see that the talk has mostly been in the direction of confirming the American ideal as one of independence, industriousness, perseverance, and common cause.

In a way, that’s almost a conservative victory of sorts — even if it does hamper the odds of a Republican one.


  1. Dan

    All I saw in the video was an extremely ambitious man saying whatever he could to milk money from his audience.

  2. Shawn

    So, what you're saying is we can't really believe anything he says, and he'll just tell people whatever he thinks they want to hear, and we really have no idea what his true intentions are.

  3. Dan

    Obviously; he's a politician.

  4. @Kisai

    I think it's damaging, but not as much as one would think. Politicians make terrible comments all the time, but the only time it counts is when they are up for election.

    As for the entire entitlements, welfare, social security, etc etc. I think many people forget that the existing baby boomers retiring paid into the system with the assumption that their kids would, hence supporting them. The actuality is that was never a sustainable business model.

    And this problem exists in Canada too. Why are we still rewarding civil servants with golden parachute retirement packages? Someone who retires at 55, may live another 40 years on it. Retirement was never supposed to let you work for 30 years and then spend another 40 years on the taxpayers time. Given the way "our system" is structured, you're supposed to graduate at age 18, take a 4-8 year post-secondary, and then retire at age age 67 (now), but people are living longer than they ever have. Retirement is supposed to take people out of the employment system so young people can come in, but this also isn't happening, most people can't actually afford to retire, they're in too much debt. So with no young people able to come into the system, and few seniors leaving it, where is the tax revenue going to come from to pay for all of this?

    Nobody will win an election by promising to throw people onto the street, but eventually someone will need to make a hard decision that will make everyone near retirement age unhappy, and nobody wants to be that person.

  5. Jake_Ackers

    He said what everyone was thinking but in a bad way. When politicians talk to their target audience or donors it always comes out bad.

    But JJ did make a good point. It's now okay to talk about the major elephant in the room (no pun intended). The fact that he hasn't backed away from it might not hurt him as much as thought. Plus Obama said he believes in redistribution of income. So it forces a discussion about the two view points beyond just this election and the video clips.

  6. JonasB

    I had a slightly different takeaway from the video. The fact that Romney mentions not trying to win the 47% isn't in itself a big deal when considered from a campaigning perspective–candidates have to focus on groups their messages have the best chances of reaching–but on further consideration I realized how much of a problem this is. By saying that 47% of Americans aren't receptive to his policy regarding size of government, Romney was essentially saying that one of the main policies he's running on would be opposed by almost half the country.

  7. Phlinn

    A large portion are probably indifferent, not opposed, but are the kind of indifferent you can't convince to care about it either.

  8. JonasB

    Hmm, that might be a fair interpretation, actually. I'm Canadian and I find a number of things going on in Parliament incredibly hard to care about despite their importance. The softwood lumber dispute was once described by J.J as one of the country's most boring controversies, for instance.

  9. drs

    He said more than that, Jonas. He said something that at the least sounded like he’s writing off half the country. Obama’s old quote sounded condescending, but it was “I can help them, even if they don’t see it.” Romney’s was “well f-ck them”.

    Plus of course the alleged statistic is BS anyway, and it’s a bit rich from someone who may not pay taxes himself, and if he does, does so at the 13% level on mega-million dollar income.

    As far as people “dependent on government”, that would include the entire military, plus people like Bill Gates and Larry Ellison who made billions via government-enforced copyright.

  10. Colin Minich

    Meeting Romney twice already in my life, he has this tendency as someone else stated to say what many think but execute it just terribly. Romney has month after month displayed a sad and sordid chain of statements that does its best to actually paint the GOP as truly interested in the higher class and no one else but, rallying the lower classes simply for votes. And what's worse is the lack of accountability behind it. There is some honesty in his words but it's simply awful and seemingly uncaring to the populace he's supposed to be helping, always stating things implied as pro-rich and then trying to sell himself as the REAL cure for the poor. He just cannot execute and not even Ryan can fully energize his base.

    At the same time…yes there has to be a reflection on to address the welfare issue. No Democrat as JJ says WANTS to be seen as the enabler of leeching despite state statistics. There has to be a return to discussion on the concepts of hard work and to cap the welfare to just how much one can be entitled to where they can live the lazy life forever.

  11. Jake_Ackers

    Truth is the GOP cannot articulate a sentence to save their life. Reagan was the last great communicator from the right. Frankly I think its due to liberal versus conservative. Not left versus right but liberal v conservative. A liberal ideology whether left or right is never happy, hence liberal. Thus they are always talking and talking and communicating. Trying to convince someone else. I think as a result it causes the left in the US who happen to be liberal to have the candidates that articulate their position better.

    But I do agree with your main point. He said what everyone is thinking but says it in the worst way possible.

  12. Virgil

    So the GOP needs another ex-Dem like Reagan?

  13. rmjones13

    As someone who is not paying income taxes because my check is too small… I would like to see Romney spend 8 hours a day wrangling screeching cats and cleaning rancid litterboxes and see if he still feels that me, and all the people I work with, are moochers who "can't be convinced to take responsibility". (I mean, seriously? I have been trying to get another job for months, am sending in applications to Teach for America and similar programs, am desperately trying to pay off college debts while working for 8 dollars a hour, paying off medical bills and vet bills for my cat, even helping out my parents from time to time… I honestly can't see how I'm not taking responsibility.)

    I think you touched on the mega problem with this, in that MOST people who don't pay income taxes are like me- working hard at a low paying job (probably because the economy sucks so bad we can't even find a better job to apply for most months), doing their best to pay their bills and get by. I just want my taxes to get back to me, and others like me, in ways that we can use rather than going to fatten up a congress member's salary or disappear in a defense budget that I don't support in it's size. So by him dismissing half of the country in such a way… yikes.

    Plus, the whole "if I were latino this would be a lot easier" crack had my jaw dropping open. (Because the fact that a good number of people in polls have actually said they would not vote for a person of color means that it is so much harder for a white guy to get elected, right?)

    I feel like Romney is completely and utterly clueless about how people on the ground level actually live, and I get the feeling he really doesn't care to fix that lack of knowledge. Which is a terrifying idea. Say what you want about Obama (dude has his issues), but he at the very least, depending on how cynical you are, puts up the illusion of caring. It's worrying when a candidate can't even bother with that much.

  14. Jake_Ackers

    See I don't think he was saying all 47% are freeloaders. Might of seemed like that but at the end he was referring to that the 47% will vote for Obama no matter what. I doubt that if Obama was Bush or if Obama was a Republican the election would of been this close. Now I will admit it does depend on how you read the sentence. And people will continue to argue this forever.

    On the Latino part. Considering how many blacks voted for Obama and how he won quite a bit of the white vote. If someone like Rubio ran or Richardson, I wouldn't doubt that there would be more people voting for them because they are Latino than against. Just look at the amount of Catholics who voted for Bush in 2000 versus 2004 just because Kerry was Catholic.

    Let me just prove a point:

    More people would vote for a Hispanic than a Mormon. So yes he was correct. He is losing more votes for being Mormon than if he was Hispanic, Black, a woman or Jewish. Only gays or atheist do worst off in polling. He does even worst off when polled about if America was ready for a Mormon President. Btw about the same amount of Reps and Dems said no to a Mormon President. And more Whites than Blacks said America was ready for a Black President in 2008.

  15. Kadin

    "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….I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

    Sounds to me like he's saying they're freeloaders and moochers.

  16. EBounding

    Mitt Romney is this cycle's John Kerry.

  17. Jake_Ackers

    True which is so funny. Dems say don't vote for MItt because he is a flip flop. Yet they had Kerry. Which was a lot worst. At least MItt has an excuse (Republican from MA) and as been at it for 6-8 years lol.

  18. M_T_Cicero

    I've chewed over what Romney said and the campaign's reaction, and I have two general thoughts:
    1) Romney puts his foot in his mouth…but he knows it and has adapted. The release of the Obama video talking about wealth redistribution shows the efforts that he's put into being able to at least neutralize some of these flubs. I think he spent most of the spring just trying to avoid making them; now resigned to them happening every-so-often, he's at least making lemonade with his lemons.
    2) These aren't "shocker" quotes and won't do /that/ much damage. Yes, he's likely to suffer under the accumulated weight of gaffes, but for the most part they're part of an already-established narrative: Romney is coming across like a somewhat out-of-touch rich white guy, yes, but if the $10,000 bet incident, the "I like firing people" line, etc. didn't bring that across, it's hard to think that this latest bit will suddenly shock folks.

    The only difference between this incident and the ones back in the spring is that at least this time, Romney had a counterpunch ready, so he hasn't been caught hapless by them. Romney at least knows what he's doing in some regard…he knows his weaknesses, so he's adapting. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen, but he's clearly putting the effort out there to control the damage and /try/ to turn his weaknesses into strengths.

  19. Jake_Ackers

    Love your points. I actually thought the $10k bet would going to do him in. But short of saying he hates poor people this is just going to have one of those "love him or hate him" affect.

    A politician should never back down from a "flub." Embrace it and spin it to fit your needs. If you get attacked for it, make the attacker look bad. Democrats do that allllllllllllllllllllllllllllll the time.

  20. Guest

    It seems to me that the international media at least will paint everything Obama does in the most positive light and everything that Romney does in the worst possible light.
    Much of what has been said by both men is subject to some interpretation and will be viewed differently depending on your viewpoint.
    Winning over the media may well be almost impossible for Romney now but seems crucial.
    That is not to say that he hasn't made his share of flubs, just that he would get an easier run of it if he had the degree of adulation the current president has from the 4th estate.

  21. ben

    I dunno, blatantly lying and making stupid moves is kinda hard to show as anything other than lying and making stupid moves.
    Romney's run is a train wreck of fail. There's two options to take. Bail out now or grip on tight for impact

  22. Guest

    I disagree Ben.
    My take on his comment was not that he did not care about the 47'. It was that, for the purposes of winning the election there is no point trying to solicit the votes of the 47% since THEY WOULD NEVER VOTE FOR HIM under any circumstance. This is a simple matter of ROI – no point spending money to try to win over people you will never get. I think that most people listening to the video impartially would say that he was writing the 47% off electorally rather than literally.
    On the other hand, the President described the assassination of a US Ambassador and the storming of a diplomatic post as a bump on the road. No outcry from the media there???
    Like I said – Mitt has made his mistakes. But everyone seems to think he is incompetent, uncompassionate and awkward because this is how he is portrayed in the press. The people who actually know the guy, and his business record, tend to suggest he is the opposite.
    Still think he doesn't have a perception problem in the media?

  23. OldsVistaCruiser

    That "47%" figure would be a lot lower if Republican-owned companies would actually pay their employees a living wage. A good number of Walmart employees (the Waltons are some of the largest contributors to the GOP) qualify for food stamps because their income is so low. The federal minimum wage in the States is $7.25/hour, yet a true living wage is at least twice that.

    I had a hard time making it on my own at my old job at $14,00/hour, and I lived in an apartment that was cheap by Philadelphia-area standards ($625/month). After I lost my job when the housing market collapsed (I worked for an electrical supply house, which was highly dependent on the construction industry), it took me 20 months to find a part-time liquor store clerk job in the Hershey, PA area with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (the PLCB is similar to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, but cheaper and no beer). I now make $11.34/hour and have to live with my elderly mother because I can't afford a place of my own.

    I don't drive a fancy car – I have a 20-year-old Jeep Cherokee which has 322,000 miles (515,000 km) on the odometer. I paid $600 for it back in February 2006, and it then had 210,000 miles (330,000 km) on it then.

  24. Jake_Ackers

    I don't buy the whole living wage thing. Minimum wage are for people who are retired or don't have a lot of work experience (mostly teenagers). If a person goes to high school (in a normal economy) they will make more than minimum wage. Especially if they have a vocation. Plus even if a person makes minimum wage but is married that is nearly $28,000-$30,000 a year. My family has been around that and its actually do able in a high cost state. There are a lot of people who want to live in NYC and yet clearly can't afford to live there. So they want a "living wage" and "rent control." Truth is everyone situation is different and depending where you live a married couple with minimum wage might or might not be enough. Again everyone's situation is different.

    However, raising the minimum wage will cause unemployment and inflation (especially if its as high as the living wage people want). If those same "greedy" companies won't pay a living wage then those same companies will just fire people for w/e reason. Plus take into consideration. On average every $1.00 an American gets paid they only make about $0.75 while it cost the employer $1.25. So that's about $0.50 gone because of regulations and taxes. No one ever takes that into consideration, when they do they are called corporate loving pigs.

    He did mention that he wants those 47% to make enough money so they can afford to pay into the system. Frankly, I just think we should get rid of the income tax altogether especially for the poor and middle class but that's just me.

  25. Jack B Nimble

    The problem with making minimum wage suddently the so called living wage is that everything else will cost more too. If Walmart had to start paying their minimum wage employees double (from $7.25 to $14.50) they have to make up that money somewhere, which means their products will cost more. In the end I suspect it would even out, the classification for poor would just shift up to a new number, but the division would remain the same.

  26. M_T_Cicero

    I think there's a point that is being missed in all of this (and even I didn't raise this in my initial post as it was tangential to what I was discussing there): A lot of the "47%" are surprisingly middle class folks whose income tax burden is wiped out by a barrage of deductions and/or tax credits. The biggest culprit might well be the mortgage interest deduction, but there are a bunch of others piled up at the lower end of the spectrum (even ignoring the "standard deduction").

    Yes, some of these don't-pay-taxes folks are jobless and/or on welfare. However, others are on Social Security/Veterans benefits (somewhat ironically, two constituencies Romney is pretty strongly tied to) and just manage to wipe out any residual tax liability with the remaining deductions out there. This doesn't require you to be poor…if most of your income is from interest or dividends at the moment (as is going to be the case with a lot of these folks who're supplementing social security with retirement savings/investments) or you're in a lower bracket, it's not going to take a lot to wipe out tax liability on a lot of income. Oh, and right now, long-term capital gains taxes on the lowest two brackets are, if I'm not mistaken, 0%.

    My point is that the 47% does include a lot of poorer minorities (who Romney is probably justified in not bothering to pursue the votes of…doing so would be like Stephen Harper focusing resources on ridings in downtown Montreal), it also stretches out in lots of other directions. I'll grant that not pursuing certain segments of the electorate makes sense, and /insofar as he said this/ he's only guilty of being unusually frank…but other than a separatist explosion of some sort, would anyone REALLY fault Harper for saying "We're not worried about winning seats in those parts of Quebec" or David Cameron for saying "Yeah, we're not bothering with Scotland or Wales…we just can't get anywhere near winning seats in those areas so we're not even trying." But he definitely went further, painted a very broad brush, and I do think he made at least something of an error in doing so.

    Had he kept his targeting a bit narrower (and been able to dodge the race-related shots that would have likely come from doing so), saying he was writing off the votes of certain demographics would be impolitic…but it would also be coherently defensible, at the very least. But the brush he used is too broad, and there's a BIG difference between the voting patterns of poor minorities and those of middle class white retirees.

    What is perhaps troubling, politically-speaking, is that one can at least see Romney implying a major shakeup on the tax code that would raise taxes on these folks. Somehow, I don't think that is going to go down too well…though Obama is already hitting on that point as it is, so whatever damage is going to be done there has probably already played out.

  27. Alcofribas

    Who, not whom!

  28. Kadin

    Do you really believe that 15% of the US population are lazy freeloaders mooching off the welfare state.

  29. J.J. McCullough

    Or the extreme poor / disabled, "safety net" type people we're always talking about. What figure do you think is more realistic? Obviously there are SOME freeloaders in America. Just because they don't number 47% of the populace doesn't mean the entire concept is invalid.

  30. ben

    "It’s a somewhat disingenuous sentiment, of course — the default progressive position in most cases is still to expand the welfare state, rather than cap it, and liberals retain an stubborn inability to even acknowledge the oft-documented reality that unemployment and poverty can, in fact, be as much the product of crappy, voluntary life choices as the sinister machinations of corporations and plutocrats."

    Granted this is about one state and unemployment…I think it parallels what's being run across.
    Ideas like this have come up in many an argument about unemployment collections in Michigan. I think the issue is in between. While expanding the program to run indefinitely for whoever gets on it won't solve anything, capping it does nothing to solve the issue either. What the government should be doing is applying the programs as needed per circumstances and help people off the programs rather than let them stay on it or kick them off because they capped and shout down at them to stop being lazy.

    The benefits in Michigan were cut to 20 weeks because some think it'll urge people to find work sooner. When there is no work, that's rather impossible. Worse yet is where I work the place goes into a seasonal shutdown with callbacks extending past those 26 weeks at times. So now people have to essentially quit a job to find another because they can't make it last till work calls them back. To top all this off, 300 bucks or less a week is barely enough to keep the lights on at times.

    I personally don't think the attitude of being on programs indefinitely is an answer. Likewise I don't think cutting people off with shorter programs because they're just "lazy" is the answer either, especially in a job market that, quit frankly, sucks.

  31. Svan

    There is a prism that politicians have to talk through that does force and intellectually honest person to consider weight of not just the words being said but also the context in which they are said. Many people would like for politicians to be less two faced, to have the same consistent personality and affectations in private life as they do with the public. When any favorite politician stands up before an unfamiliar crowd and adopts whatever highly managed colloquial habits the campaign optics department dresses them up in, it is jarring to our sense trust. However, when judging the merit of a candidates actions, words should not embody the whole discourse and compromise should not be mistaken for heresy.

    Unfortunately this provides endless rationalizations as it becomes ever more difficult to pin down precisely what sort of behaviors represent the candidate's true internal content. Republicans have an easy out if they want to say, "No. Don't worry about it. This isn't how he really feels. He's just consciously masking his personal identity behind this particular outward appearance." As it's halting double negative might imply, this reading of Romney is not false. It is possible to think of this video as a non-event.

    It does not however, seem very defensible to suggest that this video is positive. This video does not showcase Romney's strengths, it doesn't make him seem like an appealing person with valuable advice for good governance. Not only is his performance unfriendly, it doesn't play to his cool headed business logistics persona either. He's conclusions are not a hardnosed analytic tour force, they are just lazy, uncritical insults that show no respect for anyone who does not directly benefit from changes to how income tax is calculated.

    If you want to call this a non-event, that's fine. What does not appear to be a tenable interpretation is that Romney's private life is one of statements he can be proud of. Honestly I just kind of feel bad for the guy. As an impoverished nobody I don't have liberal operatives taping my every waking moment. I don't know what sort of psychic effect a presidential campaign plays with a person's emotional well-being. I can't imagine it's a net benefit.

  32. Bill025

    Ad fontes! Here's the quote:

    "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. … [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."

    Note that there is a break between the "47%" that pay no income tax and the part that states "My job is not to worry about those people" etc. The break is important since I have not so far been able to find a source to see if he was still exactly on topic.

    It reads to me as if he is blasting the 47% that routinely vote Democratic this side of 1988. It is at a fundraiser is attempting to indicate the presumably steep hill he has to climb….all the more reason for donors to open their wallets. Will he raise taxes on the 47%, or should we say create taxes on the 47%? He did create a healthcare system in Massachusetts that required every one to have health insurance…something our Supreme Court has informed us is a tax. This seems to come from his mindset. However, given that Obama has taken his proposal and imposed it nationally the difference between the candidates may be minimal. Of course, Romney has stated that he opposes such an institution on a national scale so the matter may come down to one of subsidiary and religious liberty.

    One thing is certain. No matter what the make up of Congress he will never be able to impose a tax increase as such on those who do not pay now. Another matter is certain. Tax revenue, no matter what the brackets, has brought in approximately 16-20% of GDP regardless or rates. Federal spending now approaches 25% and this is before Obamacare takes effect. Obamacare is revenue neutral over the short term but generally expected to increase spending over the long term. Even if Bush tax rates were to be repealed the result would be to send the % in taxes from around 16% to 20%. In Canada I believe tax revenue is at 12% and falling? The question is at what percentage the taxes and spending should meet. Romney would rather have them meet at a lower level….say 18%, Obama at a higher level, say 28%. Romney's fears, I suspect, are based on the notion that people who do not pay income tax will vote for a higher spending and tax level on the notion that they do not have to pay the taxes directly while they receive benefits directly. What he should do would be to explain that tax rates trickle down and that businesses will increase prices with a heavier tax load in a way that inordinately discourages those with less economic advantage and the net result will be to decrease social mobility.