By Brendan Loy
In 2009, my first full year working as an attorney, I was supporting a family of four on a single income. Because of the child tax credit, the mortgage and student loan deductions, and various other credits and deductions for which Becky and I qualified, I ultimately did not pay any federal income tax that year. I received a refund of my entire federal income-tax withholding, and then some. This means I was part of “the 47%” of non-taxpayers.
According to Mitt Romney, it also means I have an “entitlement” mentality; I believe I am a “victim”; I believe the “government has a responsibility to care for me”; and he’ll never be able to convince me that I should “take personal responsibility and care for my life.” Mitt Romney literally said that about the 47% of adults who don’t pay federal income taxes.
“The 47%” is a concept that’s been widely discussed in online conservative circles, a shorthand to refer to the Randian fear that an increasingly large percentage of the population has no “skin in the game” and are basically a bunch of moochers and parasites. In reality, however, the 47% of non-taxpayers is a diverse group that’s made up partly of people like me in 2009 (middle-class working folks who qualify for lots of credits and deductions); partly of elderly people who worked their entire lives and now depend on Social Security; and partly of poor people, both working and non-working — some of whom, yes, receive various forms of government assistance. It also includes various other groups who don’t pay federal income taxes for specific reasons, such as active duty combat troops (!). Mitt Romney thinks the 47% are all a bunch of welfare queens and food-stamp recipients, he thinks this group shares a lifestyle that he can reasonably denounce as lacking personal responsibility and betraying an entitlement mentality, but he’s just categorically wrong. This is a matter of fact, not opinion. The 47% is a vastly different group than he apparently imagines it to be.
Although I am a Democrat, I have defended Romney when he’s been criticized for previous “gaffes” that were really harmless statements taken out of context, like “corporations are people too,” “I like being able to fire people,” and “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Those were poorly worded statements, but — much like Obama’s “you didn’t build that” — the actual context was clear, and relatively inoffensive. This, though, is different. Romney said precisely what he meant, and it’s completely indefensible in every respect. The context makes it worse, not better.
(The only remotely equivalent comment that Obama has ever made, to my knowledge, is his infamous “bitter clingers” remark in 2008. That was pretty bad — I think @polarscribe is right that it wasn’t quite as bad as this, but it was genuinely bad, and I criticized him for it at the time. To this day, I think he’s lucky it wasn’t fatal to his campaign, largely due to good timing: it happened late enough that it couldn’t meaningfully help Hillary Clinton, who was already hopelessly behind, but early enough that Hillary used it extensively and made it “old news” long before the general election, so McCain couldn’t get as much mileage out of it as he could’ve if it had emerged in, oh I dunno, let’s say mid-September. Romney may not be so lucky.)
Romney wasn’t going to get my vote anyway; my decision is between President Obama and Gary Johnson. But this outrageous statement by Romney really cements my disdain for him. A man so ignorant of the basic nature of our tax code, so callously indifferent to the needless divisiveness of his own words, and so willing to engage in sweeping generalizations about other people’s “beliefs” — thereby insulting the character of millions of his fellow Americans based solely on their tax status — is unfit to be President of the United States.
UPDATE: I thought I’d put my feelings in photo form, a la those 1% / 99% photos that were all the rage last year:
David Brooks’s column today on this issue is a must-read:
In 1960, government transfers to individuals totaled $24 billion. By 2010, that total was 100 times as large. Even after adjusting for inflation, entitlement transfers to individuals have grown by more than 700 percent over the last 50 years. This spending surge…has increased faster under Republican administrations than Democratic ones.
There are sensible conclusions to be drawn from these facts. You could say that the entitlement state is growing at an unsustainable rate and will bankrupt the country. You could also say that America is spending way too much on health care for the elderly and way too little on young families and investments in the future.
But these are not the sensible arguments that Mitt Romney made at a fund-raiser earlier this year. Romney, who criticizes President Obama for dividing the nation, divided the nation into two groups: the makers and the moochers. Forty-seven percent of the country, he said, are people “who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
This comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?
It suggests that Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America. Yes, the entitlement state has expanded, but America remains one of the hardest-working nations on earth. Americans work longer hours than just about anyone else. Americans believe in work more than almost any other people. Ninety-two percent say that hard work is the key to success, according to a 2009 Pew Research Survey.
It says that Romney doesn’t know much about the political culture. Americans haven’t become childlike worshipers of big government. On the contrary, trust in government has declined. The number of people who think government spending promotes social mobility has fallen.
The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor. …
Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people. I’d put federal disability payments and unemployment insurance in this category. But, as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.
Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?
It won’t. Republicans are (probably, barring some unexpected sea change) going to lose this highly winnable election because they chose the worst major-party nominee since either Dukakis or Mondale. Yes, despite the obvious parallels, he’s even worse than Kerry, I now believe. He’s unbelievably bad.
But back to Romney’s statement. The words he used, in the context he created, are completely indefensible. Folks who claim his statement was “accurate” because of some unjustifiably narrow reading of what he said (the 47% is an accurate number, so he was right, and let’s ignore all the ‘beliefs’ and character traits he universally ascribed to the 47%), or supposedly “meant” to say (he wasn’t referring to hard-working people, he meant the true “dependents”…and we’ll ignore that they’re a small minority of the 47%, thus completely contradicting his entire damn point), are blindly partisan apologists — period. No properly informed, intellectually honest person can defend the substance of these comments. Only the ignorant and the dishonest can or would.
“Unfit to be president” is, admittedly, on reflection, probably a bit overwrought. But what Romney said was wrong, offensive, and factually indefensible, and he needs to apologize fully and completely. But of course he can’t and won’t, because doing so would require admitting that, as Brooks says, he fundamentally doesn’t understand the nation he is asking voters to let him govern.