Feelin' guilty, feelin' scared, hidden cameras everywhere
Stop! Hold on. Stay in control
-- Ray Davies, "Destroyer"
Sounds like ol' Mitt Romney was at a fundraiser recently and someone recorded his comments. And it also sounds as though we're supposed to shocked, shocked by what he had to say. David Corn of Mother Jones has the breathless dispatch, complete with money 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.Ooh, that cold-hearted bastard.
Actually, he's got the math pretty much right. About 47% of Americans don't pay income tax, although the many of them do have income taxes withheld from their paychecks in what becomes essentially an interest-free loan to Uncle Sam. I don't think all of the 47% in question are Democrats, although many are.
Romney is actually explaining something that matters rather a lot. The reason pruning back government is going to be so horribly difficult is that many millions of Americans are essentially on the dole, either through Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SSI and other general relief programs. And because we've been running over 8% unemployment for the past four years, with a workforce participation rate of only 58%, the government has a lot of clients. And since the Democrats are the Party of Government, they will have a lot of support.
I don't think there's anything especially controversial about any of that. The devil is in the details, of course. The 47% number is pretty steady right now, but the composition of those in that 47% changes. Young people start out in that number and, if their lives go well, leave and become net taxpayers. Old people pay taxes, many for years, and as they retire they become part of the 47%. Politicians understand these things, which is why the Party of Government is always trying to scare seniors about Medicare. Lately the Republicans have been doing the same thing.
For me, the most interesting part of Corn's dispatch is what Romney says about the disenchanted Obama voters he's trying to reach:
We speak with voters across the country about their perceptions. Those people I told you—the 5 to 6 or 7 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. They love the phrase that he's "over his head." But if we're—but we, but you see, you and I, we spend our day with Republicans. We spend our days with people who agree with us. And these people are people who voted for him and don't agree with us. And so the things that animate us are not the things that animate them. And the best success I have at speaking with those people is saying, you know, the president has been a disappointment. He told you he'd keep unemployment below 8 percent. Hasn't been below eight percent since. Fifty percent of kids coming out of school can't get a job. Fifty percent. Fifty percent of the kids in high school in our 50 largest cities won't graduate from high school. What're they gonna do? These are the kinds of things that I can say to that audience that they nod their head and say, "Yeah, I think you're right." What he's going to do, by the way, is try and vilify me as someone who's been successful, or who's, you know, closed businesses or laid people off, and is an evil bad guy. And that may work.This is a pretty realistic assessment of what has happened to this point. I've long understood and agreed with Romney on the main point -- no one likes having his (or her) nose rubbed in it. So I get the approach he's taken.
Of course, now that this snippet is out, that strategy will be well-nigh impossible to maintain. So what does Romney do?
I think the right answer is to call out Obama's failings, every single day and in every single way. The stimulus didn't really do much of anything. The bets Obama and his team made on green energy were busts. The Cairo speech was just a speech. And he needs to explain why the current path is unsustainable.
And Romney needs to tell people what he intends to do to change things, in clear terms. I do think the American people deserve that. If Romney does those things and loses, that's the way it goes. But if he tries to pretend that the clear meaning of what he said isn't really what he meant, he'll lose. And deserve to lose. At this point, Romney needs to own the statements, because the Democrats will make him do it anyway. And it's possible that the American people will understand.