Mitt Romney -- whose candidacy has been characterized by more "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Romney" moments than are easily quantifiable -- is finally starting to reveal who he really is.
Yesterday, veteran Washington reporter David Corn of Mother Jones magazine released a video that was secretly taped in May at a private campaign fundraiser, in which Romney expresses disdain for "the 47 percent" of Americans who, according to him, don't pay federal income taxes.
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … 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 … These are people who pay no income tax," Romney said. "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Yes. You read that correctly.
Since when did half of all Americans cease to take "personal responsibility" or "care for their lives"? And why, pray tell, does Mitt think "those people" are so beyond help that he can't teach them to do so?
This is a comedy of errors and may well be the moment Romney lost the campaign.
First, his statement reinforces what many Democrats and Republicans already believed -- that Romney is a wealthy man who has known nothing but privilege, and by either choice, circumstance or both, remains completely out of touch -- lacking any sense of the socioeconomic realities with which most people contend.
Second, Romney's myopic assessment of the average American is simply dead wrong. And his gross mischaracterization of half of the populace as parasites who'd rather depend on government than work reveals an insidious ignorance that renders him unworthy of the office he seeks.
Let's consider who the 47 percent actually are. According to a recent report by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, 46.4 percent of American households do not pay federal income taxes. This is partly due to a complicated tax code that offers a set of exemptions intended to favor working families. Indeed, the majority of that 46.4 percent do, in fact, work.
Here is the breakdown: Of those people Romney mischaracterized, 28.3 percent contribute payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare (they are not mooching off of society); 10.3 percent are retirees and the elderly, who -- because they've already paid into the system for many years -- are now receiving Social Security benefits that aren't levied a federal income tax; 6.9 percent are the non-elderly, working poor, who earn less than $20,000 a year. Others are veterans, who, due to injury, receive veterans' disability benefits. These patriotic citizens pay neither payroll nor income taxes, but still pay state, local and sales taxes. They are hardly people who don't care for their own lives.
And then there's the roughly 3,000 multimillionaires -- many of whom are private-equity magnates, real estate investors and hedge fund managers -- who escape federal income taxes every year because the majority of their income is in capital gains, which is taxed at an extremely low rate. When that is combined with the "tax loss carryforward" -- allowing investors to use a past year's losses against a present year's taxes, many walk away from having to contribute any federal tax dollars. Romney himself enjoys these benefits, and as such pays a lower overall tax rate than many of the 47 percent he now derides.
Although Romney has sought to clean up his statement, saying his words weren't "elegantly stated," there is overwhelming evidence it reflects his core principles. His vice presidential running mate Paul Ryan told the conservative Heritage Foundation in October 2011, "We're coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers." Ryan warned, "We will convert our safety net … into a hammock that ends up lulling people into lives of dependency and complacency, which drains them of their incentive and the will to make the most of their lives."
His assertion that the 47 percent of Americans are lazy and government "takers" isn't supported by any fact, yet has become a mainstay in Republican talking points and a myth strategically perpetuated by Romney and the GOP at large. One only need consider the recent ads Romney's campaign has run falsely accusing President Obama of removing the work requirement in welfare reform to illustrate the point.
And here is where Romney makes his worst political calculation of all: The 47 percent are largely poor and working-class whites, many of whom -- for good or ill -- still vote Republican. That is the great irony of Romney's revelation. It appears the candidate was seeking to maintain the dog-whistle tactics of the GOP's new Southern strategy -- by demonizing the Democratic base as lazy, black and brown people. This is, after all, the same man who, after his Obamacare knock drew boos during his speech to the NAACP, told a group of supporters: "If they want more stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy -- more free stuff."
Well, now, without realizing it, Romney is also writing off the overwhelming number of working-class whites and Evangelicals across the South and Midwest. According to data published by the Tax Foundation, eight out of 10 of the states with the highest rate of people not paying any federal income taxes were all solidly red states: Mississippi led with 45 percent, followed by Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia and Idaho. The exceptions were Florida -- a swing state with a high number of retirees -- and New Mexico. Romney's comments -- calling these voters "victims" and saying "my job is not to worry about those people" -- reflects a reckless ineptitude that may well derail his political aspirations.
Romney will claim, of course, this wasn't what he meant or intended to say. All the more reason to believe he was finally telling the truth.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on MSNBC, Al-Jazeera, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.