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Mitt's 47 percent gaffe: the Romney shambles rolls on



21 September 2012

Mitt Romney's 47 percent gaffe was a "breathtaking jumble of privilege, tone-deafness, sophistry, and social Darwinism", says Dr Nicole Hemmer. [Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore, used under the Creative Commons licence]
Mitt Romney's 47 percent gaffe was a "breathtaking jumble of privilege, tone-deafness, sophistry, and social Darwinism", says Dr Nicole Hemmer. [Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore, used under the Creative Commons licence]

At a certain point, Mitt Romney will have to pony up for the monocle and top hat if he wants to heighten his similarities to Rich Uncle Moneybags. Rhetorically, he's topped out.

Romney filled his gaffe tank on Monday when video leaked of the Republican nominee speaking at a private fundraiser in Florida. Here's the choice bit:

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'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. 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.

"And so my job is not to worry about those people," Romney continued, "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

He capped it all off by declaring, "I have inherited nothing," and asserting that had his (governor and auto executive) father "been born of Mexican parents, I'd have a better shot of winning this."

It was a breathtaking jumble of privilege, tone-deafness, sophistry, and social Darwinism, one he spent much of Monday and Tuesday trying to explain away. But his comments on the 47 percent will haunt Romney's campaign for the next seven weeks.

Allowances should be made for context. Romney would never have made such remarks on the record. His argument, such as it was, relies on a squishy logic and smug derision that pleases partisans but few others. Barack Obama's 2008 remarks about small-town Americans bitterly clinging to guns and religion - also recorded at a private fundraiser - fall in the same category.

In this case, though, context doesn't help Romney much. It's not clear where one should go to rail about low-income earners not paying their fair share, but a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser hosted by a fellow investment banker probably isn't it.

While context matters, content matters more. First, the sleight of hand. True, President Obama has a core support of about 47 percent. It is also true that around 47 percent of Americans don't pay federal income tax (though they do pay a slew of other taxes). But just because those numbers are the same doesn't mean they encompass the same people. Indeed, key Republican constituencies have no federal income tax liability, particularly the white working-class and seniors on Social Security.

And you want to talk "makers" versus "takers"? In the US, tax money flows out of wealthy states and into poor ones. Of the seventeen states that send out more money than they take in, all but one votes Democratic. And the beneficiaries of all that blue-state largesse? Seven of the top ten welfare states vote Republican.

To say, then, that those with lower tax liabilities "will vote for this president no matter what" is simply not true.

That conflation of the 47 percent with core Obama voters matters, because Romney has some harsh judgments to pass on them. They are victims, dependents, entitled. They don't have any "skin in the game", as Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said of the same group. All this makes the 47 percent less fit for democracy, less worthy of a say in government. "We all have a stake in this country and what needs to be done," Republican Senator Dan Coats said. "I think it's important that this burden not just fall on 50 percent of the people but falls on all of us in some form."

Romney has long been criticised by the right for speaking conservatism as a second language. When he listed the 47 percent's entitlements, that lack of proficiency peeked through. Ronald Reagan had it down to an art form. He spun tales of "welfare queens" fraudulently raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars. What are the lavish entitlements Romney's 47 percent clamour for? Food, housing, and health care.

In Romney's America, the 47 percenters may be starving, homeless, and sick, but at least they won't be saddled with a sense of dependency.

Sharpening this soak-the-poor attitude, Romney's policy proposals reveal he doesn't want to cut food, housing, and health care entitlements for everyone - just those at the bottom. Romney calls for reduced spending on food stamps but defends farm subsidies as a matter of national security. He wants to slash health care for the poor but vows to preserve coverage for seniors.

He's even toyed with eliminating the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency responsible for affordable housing (once headed by his father, George). That at least Romney balances: at another private fundraiser, he warned he may eliminate mortgage-interest deductions for second homes.

In his acceptance speech, Mitt Romney said:

Americans have a choice. A decision. To make that choice, you need to know more about me and about where I will lead our country.

In his remarks on the 47 percent, he made clear both who he was and who he would look out for.


Dr Nicole Hemmer is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the United States Studies Centre.


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