In a candid moment, when he thought no one was watching, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney dismissed nearly half of America as government freeloaders who will never vote for him anyway.
Romney’s own words tell the story:
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, 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. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what …These are people who pay no income tax.”
It gets worse.
“My job is not to worry about those people,” he said. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
It’s as if he said, you’ve been warned, my government will never be there to help “those people.”
The video surfaced Monday. The progressive magazine Mother Jones was given a copy by someone who was a $50,000 per person fundraising event in Boca Roton, Florida, on May 17.
Wow. There’s so much to say here. I should start with the obvious: In a world of cell phone technology no candidate for any office should ever expect a “private” event to be that. One way or another what’s said will eventually surface.
This is important because it shows what Romney really believes what America has become. He said as much in his own defense of what he said. “I am sure I can state it more clearly and effectively than I did in a setting like that,” Romney said at a news conference last night. “This is ultimately a question about the direction of the country. Do you believe in a government-centered society that provides more and more benefits? Or do you believe instead in a free-enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams?”
The problem is there’s so much wrong, factually, about what he said. About what’s saying. He’s repeating an old idea: People are poor because of a character flaw. They don’t work hard enough. They are poor because government makes it easy to live that way. (Yesterday: Don’t expect a debate about poverty.)
Only the data – hard numbers and actual experience – reveal a very different picture.
Consider what Romney said about “those people who pay no income tax.” Over the years, Congress devised the most complicated tax scheme on the planet. It gives a special rate for investment income – folks like Romney – while charging those who earn a paycheck a higher percentage. That’s just income tax. Everyone who works also pays the payroll tax, but that’s not counted in Romney’s world. Only the income tax means anything. And that payroll tax is about to go up.
Then there is his notion that 47 percent of Americans are dependent upon government. This is not Indian country. This is not welfare. The only way to reach that large a number is to include the largest entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security.
But Romney (and for that matter, the larger conservative community) gets away with attacking that 47 percent because Americans have a unique ability to ignore the government benefits they get, while at the same time, condemn other Americans who take advantage of a service. That idea was captured perfectly at a Tea Party event with a sign along the lines of “keep your hands off my Medicare.”
A 2010 paper by Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler went further. She found that a large number of program recipients, those actually getting scholarships, subsidized housing, or food stamps, then say they have not used a government social program.
That’s why Romney’s video is so potent politically. It’s one thing to blame American Indians for their plight. It’s another to blame white seniors who vote in large numbers who live on their retirement savings and Social Security.
The fact is Americans – all Americans, not just 53 percent – work harder than the rest of the world. We work longer hours, take fewer vacations, and retire far later than people living in other nations.
But America, like most countries, has a demographic problem. There are more older people than younger people. That fact alone is the reason for the “47 percent.” (And, get this, the benefits from Social Security and Medicare are not generous by international standards. By nearly every measure we rank last in the industrial world.)
But blaming seniors is not good politics. It’s so much better to attack the American Indians, the blacks, the hispanics, or, to be crass, the “other” as the source of too much spending. President Romney would not have to “worry about those people.”
To see Romney’s defense, click here.
Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: firstname.lastname@example.org.