I have written a lot about why it is a mistake to think of all the people who don’t pay federal income taxes as a constituency for bigger government. For one thing, most of those people pay payroll taxes, and it does not appear that many people make sharp distinctions between payroll and income taxes. They just think of themselves as paying taxes. They don’t think they’re getting big government for free.
For the exact same reason the 47 percent statistic does not mean what Romney thinks it does, I doubt this remark will hurt politically. (Romney is like Obama in that about 47 percent of the voters will back him no matter what.) A lot of the people in the 47 percent won’t feel insulted because they don’t know they’re in it. They see taxes get withheld on their paychecks too.
This incident doesn’t make me significantly less inclined to prefer Romney over Obama or less optimistic he will win. But it is nonetheless troubling.
The worst aspect of Romney’s remarks was not his analytical mistake about the 47 percent or so of Americans who pay no federal income taxes. It was the remark that his job was not to be concerned about those people because he could not force them to take responsibility for their own lives.
Paul Ryan makes the same analytical mistake — he has said the 47 percent statistic is a sign we are at a tipping point where takers could soon outnumber makers. But he does not conclude that the takers should therefore be written off. Instead he argues that the right policies can make them into makers, and it would be good for them, and the rest of us.
UPDATE: Some commenters say that Romney’s remark about how it’s not his job to be concerned about the 47 percent should be read as “it’s not my job in this campaign to get these people’s votes.” This interpretation would be more plausible if his following sentence weren’t about how he can’t get these people to take responsibility for their lives. That’s not a comment about political strategy.