To read many of the reactions on Twitter, you’d think Mother Jones had just found video of Mitt Romney strangling a hooker with her own pantyhose. “It’s over!” “Devastating!”
I have my doubts. These “gaffes” (scare quotes necessary because the term has lost a definite meaning beyond “controversial statement that gets a politician off message”) rarely seem as devastating as partisan opponents hope (though don’t tell that to Todd Akin). During the 2008 cycle, Barack Obama was recorded, also at a fundraiser, saying that Democrats in western Pennsylvania were too bigoted and religiously deluded to consider voting for him. Complaints about that far more offensive “bitter clinger” stuff remain staples of conservative rhetoric. But there’s still no evidence I know of that it hurt him much at all. I suspect Romney’s statement will have even less of a shelf life.
Before I continue on that point, let me concede that I think there are real flaws in what Romney said. The simple fact is that the 47 percent of the people who are “locked in” to vote against him aren’t locked-in because they’re dependent on the government, freeloaders or because they don’t pay any income taxes. That 47 percent refers to partisan identification which has, at best, only a loose connection with income and tax-paying.
Ultimately Romney’s division of the electorate has an odd Marxist twang to it, as if those dependent on government are simply voting their naked economic self-interest. Traditionally, it’s the Left that argues, a la Thomas Frank, that voting is — or should be — about your cold economic self-interest and nothing more. Thankfully, that’s not how most people vote, nor should it be. After all, Obama was the preferred candidate of Wall Street and the wealthy in 2008. Meanwhile, McCain was the preferred candidate of retirees — i.e., a huge chunk of the people who don’t pay income taxes.
Which raises the other, bigger, problem with the blanket derogation of people who don’t pay income taxes. Undoubtedly moochers and layabouts are overrepresented in the ranks of the non-filers of income taxes. But so are the working poor (thanks to, among other things, the Earned Income Tax Credit), retirees, college students, et al. Saying that (most) moochers don’t pay income taxes is probably true. But it’s not at all clear that most people who don’t pay income taxes are moochers. Obama would be out of cash already if no 1 percenters supported him. And Romney would lose the election several times over if every person who doesn’t pay income taxes refused to vote for him.
But that won’t happen. Indeed, many people understand what Romney is getting at here, even if he’s saying it badly. Some may even welcome a little spark and snark from a guy who so often seems so polished he has no rough edges. Lots of people, most importantly lots of independents, understand the basic and irrefutable point that there are too many people who feel entitled to consume a lot more tax dollars than they contribute. Some 60 percent of households get more from government than they pay in. They all understand that taxing the top 1 percent even more won’t change that, nor will it fix our fundamental problems. Some people — even people who don’t pay income taxes — will just hear Romney being passionate about fixing this imbalance and vote for him because of it. What’s best for the country, and not just for them, will be foremost in their minds.
No, I don’t think this video is good news for Romney. But if Romney showed a little more of the spirit he shows in this video, I’m not sure it wouldn’t help.