I originally had no intention of writing about Mitt Romney's leaked speech from a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser. I dismissed it as a gaffe or, even more likely, a red meat "Win this one for the Gipper" invocation from a slipping Presidential candidate. The latter, while distasteful, is just an unfortunate part of politics practiced by both sides (i.e., "cling to their guns..." Obama circa 2008).
But yesterday, Mitt Romney did not deny and did not apologize. He said his comments were "not elegantly stated", but that they showed a contrast between the President's "government-centered society" and his "free-market approach." And as noted through-out the media-sphere, conservatives are holding him to these comments, and specifically instructing him "not to back down." In essence, this argument is part of the campaign:
"I mean, he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax; 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. 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."
That's fine by me. To quote Paul Ryan "We want this debate. We need this debate." And who wins this debate will be decided in November. This statement has been dissected to no end in the news media over the last few days, but rather than pile on, I just wanted to make some observations about why it is a conversation worth having. Romney's comments represent a philosophy that will permeate all aspects of his domestic policy. More importantly, if implemented, our government would face fundamental change that we have not seen in some time.
1) As a preliminary matter, Mitt Romney better hope that he has not already lost the 47% of Americans that do not pay taxes. As Gallup noted, Romney has over a third of voters who make $24,000 or less a year only a little over half the voters making over $180,000. Casting this as "I'm for the makers, he's for the takers" is just factually inaccurate.
2) Approximately 22% of those not paying income taxes are retirees. I can only suppose that Mitt Romney did not intend to write off retirees as those of whom he'll "never convince" to take personal responsibility and care for their lives. As Gallup also notes, Mitt Romney is winning the 60-95 vote.
3) Do we really live in a Country where those able to pay for a $50,000 a plate fundraiser (double the poverty level for a house of 4) and pay 14% (or less) in income taxes resent and malign those who don't make enough money to pay any income taxes? More importantly, isn't Mitt Romney's primary message that the economy's poor state is the President's fault? If that's true, those on unemployment assistance, not paying taxes, "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims," are exactly the people that Mitt Romney should be reaching out to. In fact, if they believe they are victims, Romney may have been the one to make them feel that way.
4) Mitt Romney just lost the "class warfare" pistol from his holster. If this is not naked class instigation, I don't know what is. I have no doubt that those low income Romney supporters targeted by these comments will continue to support their candidate, but it has become all the more apparent that this is against their interest.
I hope Mitt Romney sticks to this message, because I think it needs to be debated and defeated. We cannot villainize our poor. We need a much more mature discussion about poverty in the United States that is not mired in allegations of laziness or a failure to take personal responsibility for one's life. Just as you may be able to show me poor people who have made bad decisions with their lives, I can show you twice as many wealthy Americans that have had their paths paved with gold. Neither proves the category, yet when it comes to the Country's poor, we are easily dismissive.
Why can't we talk about poverty in terms of Education, Opportunity, and Equality? Because statements like those made by Mitt Romney continue to poison the well.