Team Romney's biggest problem continues to be Mitt Romney. It's tough to build a campaign around a cartoonish 1-percenter whose CPU doesn't appear to be programmed for human empathy and who lacks an effective filter between brain and gums.
Will his 47 percent moment prove to be his undoing? Probably not in the short-term; an unusually high number of voters are already locked in, and as Cornell University's Suzanne Mettler's research has shown, a lot of Americans receiving benefits from the government have no clue that they are, so people who should be personally offended by Romney's crass remarks may instead think he's talking about “undeserving” blacks and lazy welfare cheats.
But it is hurting the candidate, reinforcing the majority's view of Romney as aloof and uncaring. It's also forcing the campaign onto the defensive, marking another few news cycles in which the campaign is forced to talk about things it would prefer not discuss. Finally, the story provides a perfect opening to once again hammer Romney for refusing to release his tax returns -- has he been among the 47 percent who pay no federal income taxes? It's entirely possible.
Whatever the long-term impact of the video might be, that moment of candor is a bombshell dropped into the election seven weeks before voters go to the polls, and it's triggered a variety of responses from the right. Let's take a tour of what conservatives are saying.
1. The Problem Isn't Romney, It's the Crazies
David Frum (whose Canadian background may serve the function of a tin-foil hat, protecting him from the crazy that's swept his compatriots) thinks Romney “committed the worst presidential-candidate gaffe since Gerald Ford announced in 1976 that 'there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.'" For Frum, what makes it such a killer is the right-wing media's reaction. “You know who's determined that Romney never recover?" he asks. "His deluded supporters in the conservative media world.”
Romney was expressing views that are widely held among a certain group of conservatives, and they are determined to make it as awkward as possible for him to retreat from those views.
And Romney's defenders' big blind spot all comes down to race:
When you ask white Americans to estimate the black population of the United States, the answer averages out at nearly 30%. Ask them to estimate the Hispanic population, and the answer averages out at 22%.
So when a politician or a broadcaster talks about 47% in "dependency," the image that swims into many white voters' minds is not their mother in Florida, her Social Security untaxed, receiving Medicare benefits vastly greater than her lifetime tax contributions; it is not their uncle, laid off after 30 years and now too old to start over.
2. He Was Just Mixing Up The Wingnut Talking-Points
Over at the National Review, Rich Lowery argues that Romney was right, but got his rhetoric confused. “The overall impression of Romney at this event,” writes Lowery, “is of someone who overheard some conservative cocktail chatter and maybe read a conservative blog or two, and is thoughtlessly repeating back what he heard and read.”
[H]e jumbled together three different groups (the almost half of the country that’s going to support Obama no matter what; the roughly half of households that get government benefits; the half of “tax units” that don’t pay taxes). Since we’re all in amateur-political-consultant mode, I would counsel disentangling and better explaining what he was trying to say about each of those groups.
The reality, of course, is that Romney cherry-picked one tax – federal income taxes – which happens to be one of our more progressive taxes. It accounts for 42 percent of federal revenues. A more regressive tax, paid by almost every working person -- but not the super-rich who live off of their investments -- is the payroll tax, which accounts for 40 percent of the government's take. And, of course, the idea that the 47 percent of households that don't pay federal income taxes are Democrats is just silly – they're heavily concentrated in red states and a fifth of that group are elderly, a demographic that tends to skew Republican.
3. Some Get It
So, in one sense, we have a sort of political intelligence test. And some conservatives are smart enough to know that, like any falling bombshell, this is a story from which one should run away.
David Brooks, the New York Times' cuddly, non-threatening-to-people-on-the-Upper-East-Side conservative, wrote that Romney's comment, “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?”
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.
4. Both Sides Do It!
Some conservatives have neither the inclination to defend nor attack Romney's comments. Instead, their view is: look! A shiny thing! Let's talk about Obama's “bitter people clinging to guns or religion” moment from 2008!
Bill Kristol leads the charge, writing, “we have in 2012 two presidential candidates who—when they thought they were speaking privately to their fellow 1 percenters—have shown contempt for fellow Americans.” What's more, says Kristol, “Obama was speaking about Democrats who were voting in the primary for Hillary Clinton. So Obama seems to have contempt not just for the Republicans who oppose him, but for millions of Americans who ended up voting for him in November 2008.”
While both “gaffes” were made at private fundraisers, were based on dubious sociological premises and did some damage, as Jonathan Chait notes, the underlying messages couldn't be more different. “The spirit of Obama’s remarks,” writes Chait, “was precisely the opposite of Romney’s... the thrust of Obama’s argument was that he believed his policies would help [the bitter gun-clingers], and to urge his supporters to make common cause with them....Romney genuinely seems to conceive of the lowest-earning half of the population as implacably hostile parasites.”
One of the more bizarre responses from the right was offered up by Michael Walsh at the National Review. Walsh thinks Mitt accidentally “sounded remarkably like...a real conservative” and says that “he ought to own it.” Then he quotes a Brit who criticized Romney's comments and launched this...odd broadside:
Hey, buddy — he’s our idiot, so don’t get this Irish-American started on your idiots, the House of Saxe-Coburg und Gotha, the family of Germans who’ve been ruling your country since Queen Victoria snuggled up with Prince Albert and produced Edward VII and, thanks to a family squabble among Georgie, Willie, and Nicky, drove your country right into World War I — a disaster from which it’s never recovered.
OK, then. Walsh was obviously working out some issues, but he was doing so on the way to comparing a bloodless plutocrat saying stupid things at a fundraiser to the battle of Gettysburg. No, really:
This is Mitt’s time, this is his moment. As at the Battle of Gettysburg, neither side was really looking for this fight at this time and in this place, but here it is. And that means going all in.
Sure, Mitt might have phrased things more elegantly.... but now he has a choice — to back away from the implication of his off-the-cuff remarks, and try to blame his sentiments on infelicity, or to embrace the stark dichotomy he laid out and go with it. This chance encounter should be the thing that forces Romney out of his crouch, away from his krack kadre of kampaign konsultants, and fleeing from his over-reliance on conventional wisdom and polls.
Then he started talking about how Robert E. Lee was looking for shoes when the battle of Gettysburg was thrust upon him and then, presumably, a nurse came with Walsh's meds.
6. Damn Public Opinion!
Richard Grenell, you may remember, was briefly hired as Romney's foreign policy spokesman before the Romney team buckled to pressure by the religious right and ditched him for being gay. (After Romney's hamfisted response to the attacks on our consolate in Benghazi, one suspects that Grenell is pretty happy not to be the one answering reporters' foreign policy questions.) It also turns out that he's quite the wingnut (I had to block him on Twitter). Grenell is ecstatic about the tape's release, tweeting, “it worked! the media are talking about how 47% pay no income taxes.”
The problem for both Grenell and Walsh is that this is not a good thing for the Romney campaign. As Greg Sargent pointed out, only the hard-right buys into the 'moochers versus looters' narrative.
Pew asked Americans what they think about the amount lower-income people pay in taxes. Only 20 percent think they pay too little, versus 34 percent who say they pay a fair amount and 37 percent who say they pay too much — a total of 71 percent.
Pew also tells me that only 23 percent of independents, and 18 percent of moderates, say low-income people pay too little in taxes, while big majorities of both say they pay a fair amount or too much...
Only 22 percent of self-described middle-class people think lower-income folks pay too little, versus 69 percent who say they pay their fair share or too much.
Meanwhile, the reverse is true about rich people. A majority, 58 percent, say the wealthy pay too little in taxes, while only 26 percent say they pay their fair share. Fifty six percent of independents, and 69 percent of moderates, say the rich pay too little.
7. Dems Are Mad Because Romney Revealed Their Evil Plot
Further down the food-chain of right-wing opinion dwells the Daily Caller's Jim Treacher, who might be the dumbest person on the Internet were it not for the existence of a guy named Jim Hoft.
While just about every other conservative at least acknowledged that, yeah, some of the people who don't pay taxes are solid Republicans, or called Romney's comments “inartful,” Treacher thinks it's all true. Under the headline, “The Democrats think Romney just self-destructed by pointing out, um, THEIR ENTIRE STRATEGY [enraged capitals in the original],” he writes: “That’s Obama’s reelection message: 'Vote for me or Romney will take away all the free goodies you’ve got coming to you! By the way, can you believe he called you a mooch?'”
He then offers two examples: an Obama campaign ad touting how a young woman would be able to get surgery because she was able to stay on her parents' private insurance plan until age 26, and a not-at-all-dog-whistle video clip of a black mother saying that she hopes Obama wins because if he does things will get better and she won't have to worry about paying the mortgage or putting gas in her car (although she doesn't say anything of the sort, the video is labeled, “Obama is going to pay for my gas”).
8. It's Not Fair to Blame Romney For the Words Coming Out of Romney's Mouth
Also at the Daily Caller, Matt Lewis, after noting that "Media elites are breathlessly reporting” on the comments, simply translates them into something less offensive.
This is basically what he was trying to tell the donor who asked the question: We live in a world of limited resources, campaigns must wisely husband their resources (time and money). Political targeting involves two very politically incorrect things — profiling and discrimination, and Obama and I will do both. We will profile and target persuadable, likely voters for advocacy. We will target supporters for turnout. And, yes, both sides will ignore people we know will never vote for us. (Note: I can say this because I’m not running for president.)
He then says we should have a serious conversation about whether “we want to have an entitlement society or an opportunity society?” because right-wingers are hard-wired to not recognize that, in the real world, a robust public sector offers us more opportunity, and more personal freedom, not less.
9. Then Jonah Goldberg Said Something Dumb
Let's pause to recap: Mitt Romney said that half of the population are moochers and free-loaders who pay no taxes, and they're all Democrats.
Romney’s remarks reinforce the overriding problem with his campaign: It is bloodlessly non-ideological. And that is by design. Stewart Stevens, Romney’s top strategist has made it abundantly clear he doesn’t much care about ideas or philosophy....
Even the campaign’s ostensibly ideological ads and soundbites seem offered not as statements of conviction but as carefully — and sometimes not so carefully — crafted slogans aimed at telling the silly swing-voters what they most want to hear.
Yup, silly swing voters want to hear that they're lazy ne'er-do-wells looking for a handout.
10. When in Doubt, Blame the Lamestream Media
We are talking about conservatives – a group that actually believe themselves to be perennial “victims,” but not of the predations of the 1 percent. No, they are victims of the “liberal” media's enduring conspiracy to make people like Mitt Romney seem out-of-touch – the same media that refuses to take charges that Obama's birth certificate is fake or that climate scientists are trying to tackle capitalism with their false data about climate change seriously.
Appearing on Fox and Friends, Laura Ingraham said that it was media malpractice just to cover the story. “I’m very pumped up about this,” she told Gretchen Carlson. “I think it’s ridiculous that people are seizing on it and that we’re even giving all that much airtime to it, frankly.”
At the American Spectator, Aaron Goldstein acknowledged that it was a story, but then dinged Romney for bothering to hold a presser and trying to address the comments.
After all, Barack Obama didn't call a press conference after it was revealed that he had called small town Americans "bitter" people who "cling to guns and religion" at a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco. Of course, there was no demand for him to do so because not only did the liberal press not question him about it but they were in agreement with him and still are. The liberal press, by and large, holds the values of small town America in low esteem.
I think it was unnecessary for Romney to have the press conference because he was drawing attention to himself on the defensive rather than drawing attention to himself for going on the offensive against Obama. Besides I hardly think this press conference will placate the liberal media.
Goldstein, a Canadian who learned all about small-town America from his home in Boston, is right about one thing: a hastily called press conference where a smirking candidate answers three questions and then flees the stage probably won't placate those liberal media meanies.
Wed, 09/19/2012 (All day)
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