What is up with the Romney campaign all of a sudden? Last week it was his foreign policy misstep following the attack that killed a U.S. ambassador in Libya. This week it's the release of a video from a private fundraiser in May showing the GOP presidential nominee appearing to write off almost half the American electorate. "There are 47 percent of the people who will for vote for the president, no matter what," Romney says. "There are 47 percent ... who are dependent upon government, who believe 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 ... These are people who pay no income tax.
What is up with the Romney campaign all of a sudden?
Last week it was his foreign policy misstep following the attack that killed a U.S. ambassador in Libya. This week it's the release of a video from a private fundraiser in May showing the GOP presidential nominee appearing to write off almost half the American electorate. "There are 47 percent of the people who will for vote for the president, no matter what," Romney says. "There are 47 percent ... who are dependent upon government, who believe 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. ... These are people who pay no income tax.
"My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility. ..."
To be sure, the Romney campaign did not intend for the video to go public, though let's face it, just about everything does in a presidential campaign. The candidate was concerned enough about the perceptions it has created - making headlines across the country - that he held a press conference to explain himself, in which he conceded that his remarks were "not elegantly stated" and "off the cuff." Otherwise, Romney did not back down.
That only freeloaders will vote for Barack Obama is not an uncommon view in Republican circles, what even conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times referred to on Tuesday as "a country-club fantasy." Specifically, the 47 percent figure Romney and other conservatives have latched onto is accurate as far as it goes - 46 percent of Americans did not pay income taxes in 2011, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center (TPC) - but in the context the candidate is trying to create here, well, consider the assertion factually challenged.
The vast majority of Americans do pay taxes, if not federal income taxes then payroll taxes, property taxes, sales taxes, etc. The TPC noted that of those who paid no income taxes, fully three-quarters of them were retired seniors who carried their water once upon a time or working families with children who simply didn't earn enough. Some benefitted from programs, such as child tax credits, that Republicans themselves have championed. Also among that 46 percent were wealthy Americans who live off investments on which they pay capital gains rather than income taxes.
One appreciates that Romney is trying to differentiate himself and his "free-enterprise society" from the "government-centered society" he sees an Obama administration promoting. The larger issue - where Romney gets more traction - is that 49 percent of Americans live in households where at least one member gets a direct government benefit of some sort, which is up from 44 percent in 2008, from 30 percent in the early 1980s. Of course that includes not just poor people on Medicaid and/or food stamps but senior citizens on Social Security and Medicare, combat soldiers, veterans using the GI Bill, farmers, etc., Republicans as well as Democrats among them. While some government programs arguably do tempt an unhealthy dependency on Uncle Sam - indefinite unemployment compensation comes to mind - the uncomfortable question and public relations problem for Romney is this: Are the latter irresponsible welfare recipients, too, taking their government for a ride? Romney's implication is that they are, they'll never vote for him and he therefore has no obligation to them (though he has since hedged a bit). Here one thought the president's "job" was to represent all Americans, not just 53 percent of them.
Oh, Obama has had his share of gaffes, too. "You didn't build that" comes to mind. Some will recall then-candidate Obama describing rural Americans in 2008 as those who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them." It betrayed a very telling bias against people who weren't like him, rooted in caricature, not reality. Arguably the same is true for Romney, if in reverse. Americans deserve better from both candidates.
Ultimately it did not prove fatal for Obama then and should not for Romney now, though the latter is squandering his opportunities, and with time running short. Obama is vulnerable but Romney is self-inflicting injuries without the president saying a word. Obama has been leading in every major poll but Rasmussen - which always leans Republican - since the Democratic National Convention, consistently by at least three points. That's within the margin of error, but Fox News has the incumbent up by five points, NBC/Wall Street Journal up by five, CNN up by six.
As one has written previously, this is the silly season. Of course Democrats are making hay of this, as Republicans would if the tables were turned. Still, when a candidate routinely serves up such low-hanging fruit for his free-swinging critics, it is not insignificant. Understanding the bully pulpit does matter. More than just Americans put great stock in the words of the leader of the free world. Such mistakes also speak to the quality of the advisers with whom the candidate surrounds himself, as important a consideration as any for voters. "I've got a good team," Romney insists. Does he?
Much can change between now and Nov. 6. Given the last two weeks, the upcoming debates have risen in importance for the Republican nominee.
Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.