September 19, 2012 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In a “Campaign Stops” post which the New York Times published late Tuesday night, columnist Ross Douthat argues that GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s now infamous remarks to wealthy donors at a May 2012 fundraiser may not provide a picture of the “Real Romney,” a picture he characterizes as not much different from the “Real Obama.” Douthat writes,
Romney has built his career, in business and in politics, on telling people what they want to hear in order to persuade them to let him manage their affairs. This is a man who tried to get to the left of Ted Kennedy in their 1994 Senate race and to the right of Rick Perry in 2012. The idea that he would reveal his true political beliefs to a group of people he’s trying to flatter, cajole and spook into giving him more money may be appealing to his critics, but it isn’t necessarily convincing.
I’m not sure it matters if the tapes reveal the Real Romney or some other fake Romney. As Douthat’s fellow-conservative Andrew Sullivan wrote in the Daily Beast, “there are two possibilities: this is the real Romney, a callous cynic with contempt for half the country, the weaker part; or that Romney is a man so empty of human qualities he even has to fake cynicism.” One thing we know for sure, Romney is capable of flipping off every one of us.
Rather than making Mitt Romney’s remarks the subject of his post, Douthat comments on what those remarks show about the sorry state of the American aristocracy: Romney’s comments, Douthat writes, “help illuminate the way many well-off Americans feel about their less-fortunate fellow countrymen – and it isn’t a pretty thing to see.” In furtherance of this argument, Douthat incorporates Barack Obama’s 2008 remarks about “bitter” rural Democrats who “cling to their guns and religion”:
As many people have pointed out, Romney’s comments are a right-wing echo to what was previously the most famous leak from a fundraising event: Barack Obama’s remarks in San Francisco in April 2008, when he characterized working class voters who were resistant to his charms as “bitter” people who ‘cling to guns or religion’ and scapegoat immigrants because the economy has let them down.
In both cases, a presidential candidate was speaking about poorer people to a room full of rich people; in both cases, he was pandering to those rich people’s fearful stereotypes about a way of life that they don’t understand or share….
Unlike some commentators, Douthat – to his credit – admits that
The way Obama and Romney employed these stereotypes are not actually equivalent. Both behind-closed-door comments were profoundly condescending, but only Romney explicitly wrote off the people he’s describing. As Slate’s William Saletan notes, Obama embedded his bitter- clingers characterization in a longer riff about why it’s important for Democrats to keep fighting for blue-collar votes. Romney’s remarks were more dismissive and therefore should prove more politically damaging: ‘I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,’ he said, of millions of his fellow countrymen, and left it at that.
Douthat, then, frames the difference between Romney’s and Obama’s remarks as a tactical one. Romney kissed off voters who were not his natural constituency while Obama chose to court “Clinton Democrats.” (Obama made his remarks during his primary contest with then-Senator Hillary Clinton, a salient point Douthat seems to have forgot.) In reading Douthat’s post, you would think that Romney and Obama were equally self-serving: Romney was merely expressing his view he didn’t have a shot with the Great American Slacker Class, while Obama thought he could pick off a few “bitter” rubes.
But the difference between the substance of Romney’s remarks and Obama’s goes far beyond campaign strategies. Romney described the “47 percent” as Americans
… who are with [Obama], 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.
Romney doesn’t just write off these voters as dyed-in-the-wool Obamabots. He writes them off as people. According to Romney, nearly half of Americans refuse to do their fair share; instead, they feel they are entitled to government handouts for everything – “you name it.” They are “takers,” as Romney’s chosen running-mate Paul Ryan calls them (as opposed to “makers,” like the wealthy Republicans in the room). Nothing will make the takers get up off their lazy asses: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” Romney says. Romney cannot imagine any set of circumstances that would make 47 percent of Americans take responsibility for their own lives. No wonder Romney was a “pioneer” in sending jobs to China. In the same videotaped speech, he says,
When I was back in my private equity days, we went to China to buy a factory there. It employed about 20,000 people. And they were almost all young women between the ages of about 18 and 22 or 23. They were saving for potentially becoming married. And they work in these huge factories…. And uh, as we were walking through this facility, seeing them work, the number of hours they worked per day, the pittance they earned, living in dormitories with uh, with little bathrooms at the end of maybe 10, 10 room, rooms. And the rooms they have 12 girls per room…. And around this factory was a fence, a huge fence with barbed wire and guard towers. And, and, we said gosh! I can’t believe that you, you know, keep these girls in! They said, no, no, no. This is to keep other people from coming in.
Now, those young women showed the kind of gumption and responsibility Romney wishes 47 percent of Americans would demonstrate: climbing fences to get horrible jobs that pay a pittance! This is Michele Bachmann’s proposal to eliminate the minimum wage, writ large. It is impossible to overstate the contempt Mitt Romney has for ordinary people.
In contrast to Romney, Obama, in his secretly taped remarks, “was demonstrating significant empathy toward the white, blue-collar, small-town and rural Pennsylvania voters of whom he spoke,” as Frank James of National Public Radio writes. Here are Obama’s 2008 remarks, in context:
… the places where we are going to have to do the most work are the places where people feel most cynical about government…. Everybody just ascribes it to ‘white working-class don’t wanna work – don’t wanna vote for the black guy.’ That’s … there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today – kind of implies that it’s sort of a race thing….
So the questions you’re most likely to get about me, ‘Well, what is this guy going to do for me? What’s the concrete thing?’ What they wanna hear is – so, we’ll give you talking points about what we’re proposing – close tax loopholes, roll back, you know, the tax cuts for the top 1 percent. Obama’s gonna give tax breaks to middle-class folks and we’re gonna provide health care for every American…. Our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives….
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Romney tells his rich donors that half the nation is lazy and greedy; Obama says that people become bitter and discouraged because of circumstances largely beyond their control – circumstances which the government can help alleviate. Their alienation “is not surprising,” Obama says.
What does Romney say he’ll do to help these riffraff? Nothing: “My job is is not to worry about those people.” Notice that “those people” construction: “those people” are – like Obama – part of the vast “other” world – the world of inferior people who cannot hold a candle to good Republican fatcats. (What Romney would do is punch holes in the social safety net, to lacerate what Paul Ryan calls the “hammock that lulls able bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency.”) Obama, on the other hand, mentions some specific proposals that he thinks would improve the lives of small-town voters: tax breaks, health care. Romney mocks half the the country for playing the victim; Obama says, in effect, “Well, yeah, they are victims, and government can help turn that around. Government can create conditions that mitigate personal disasters and that increase opportunities for personal success.”
Over and above his disdain for half the people he means to govern, Romney is ignorant of who these lazy, non-taxpaying Obama voters are. For one thing, the 47 percent who don’t pay taxes and the 47 percent who are in the tank for Obama are not the same people. Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post says, “Romney appears to conflate a few things – Obama’s approval rating, the percentage of people who do not pay income taxes and people who rely on government assistance. There may be some overlap between these groups but they really are not the same thing.”
As to who those irresponsible non-taxpaying Americans are, Matt Miller wrote in today’s Washington Post, “
… low earners were largely dropped from the rolls thanks to (sensible) Republican-supported policy that boosted the earned income tax credit? Which was itself the brainchild of conservative icon Milton Friedman! And … those in the 47 percent who aren’t seniors or veterans are mostly poor workers whose payroll taxes, at 15.3 percent (since the employer side of the tax effectively comes out of workers’ wages), leaves them taxed at a higher rate than was Mitt Romney on his $20 million income last year.
And as Douthat’s colleague Paul Krugman wrote,
… if you look at the facts, you learn that the great bulk of those who pay no income tax pay other taxes; also, many of the people in the no-income-tax category are (a) elderly (b) students or (c) having a bad year, having lost a job – that is, they’re people who have paid income taxes in the past and/or will pay income taxes in the future. The idea that half of Americans are just grifters is grotesque.
Miller is a centrist, and Krugman is a liberal, but some conservatives also have figured out Romney is confused. It would seem “Bush’s Brain” is smarter than Romney’s brain: Karl Rove told Politico reporters, “A lot of people who get a Social Security check paid into that their entire lives and they’re plenty wired up about the deficit and there are lots of people getting an unemployment check who would love to have a job, so you’ve got to be careful about that number.” That is, a good chunk of the 47 percent who don’t pay income tax also usually vote Republican. Rove might have mentioned the military, too, most of whom are low-paid grunts whose incomes and benefits come in the form of “government handouts” and who have long leaned Republican. And as David Graham wrote in The Atlantic, the “problem is that those people [who don't pay income tax] are disproportionately in red states – that is, states that tend to vote Republican.” (I don’t know what Graham’s political leanings are, but he is another commentator who quickly jumped on the Romney-Obama “gaffe” comparison.)
But let’s not pretend all the irresponsible freeloaders are the low-paid, the elderly and students. Kevin Roose of New York magazine wrote Tuesday,
As Bruce Bartlett noted last year, roughly 12 million households making over $33,542 in 2011 paid no federal income tax. And there are an untold number of illegal tax evaders who haven’t paid a dime either. (Like Wesley Snipes!) But the most egregious members of the 47 percent are the 3,000 people who made more than $2,178,866 in 2011 (putting them in the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers), and yet paid no federal income taxes.
That is, some of the people in that Boca ballroom may have been among the moochers who paid little no income tax. And it is likely that all, or most all of them, like Romney himself, have been the beneficiaries of “government handouts.” But of course Romney and his ilk believe they have “earned” their bailouts by dint of their contributing so much to society.
And, like Romney, they may believe they have made their fortunes entirely on their own. Roose’s colleague at New York, Jonathan Chait, wrote,
… the video exposes an authentic Romney as a far more sinister character than I had imagined. Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party. He believes that market incomes in the United States are a perfect reflection of merit. Far from seeing his own privileged upbringing as the private-school educated son of an auto executive-turned-governor as an obvious refutation of that belief, Romney cites his own life, preposterously, as a confirmation of it. (‘I have inherited nothing. Everything I earned I earned the old fashioned way.’)
It is worth noting here that Romney’s own father, who could much more accurately be described as a self-made man than is Willard, “was a refugee from Mexico. He was on welfare relief for the first years of his life,” according to Lenore Romney, Mitt’s mother. (Video here.) Elsewhere in his speech to the Boca grandees, Romney mused that “Had [my father] been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot of winning this.” This notion that poor people and minorities get all the breaks is not just a dogwhistle to resentful white Republican working-class voters. Conservatives of every economic class have embraced it. When voiced by the “oppressed” rich, Digby calls it “the American aristocrat’s persecution complex.” Never mind that it is a reprehensible distortion of both historical and present-day conditions.
I don’t know how much Romney’s remarks say about rich Republicans. During the summer, both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times reported on a Romney fundraiser in the Hamptons that provided some hilarious anecdotal evidence suggesting Douthat is right about them. Douthat is, however, just guessing about rich Democrats, whom he characterizes as people who “can’t fathom why working class Americans might look askance at an elite that’s presided over a long slow social breakdown and often regards their fundamental religious convictions as obstacles to progress.” I know some very wealthy Democrats – some to the manner born and some self-made – and it seems to me their politics come from their generous natures, not from some clueless freakout about the alien habits of middle-class people.
But I think Douthat’s colleague David Brooks is mostly right about what Romney’s comments say about Romney. (Yeah, I know, I seldom write, “Brooks is right.”) In his column published Tuesday, Brooks wrote,
Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America…. America remains one of the hardest-working nations on earth…. Ninety-two percent say that hard work is the key to success, according to a 2009 Pew Research Survey…. Romney doesn’t know much about the political culture. Americans haven’t become childlike worshipers of big government. On the contrary, trust in government has declined….
The people who receive the disproportionate share of government spending are not big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor.
Romney’s comments also reveal that he has lost any sense of the social compact…. The Republican Party, and apparently Mitt Romney, too, has shifted over toward a much more hyperindividualistic and atomistic social view – from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers….
Romney knows nothing about ambition and motivation. The formula he sketches is this: People who are forced to make it on their own have drive. People who receive benefits have dependency. But, of course, no middle-class parent acts as if this is true. Middle-class parents … shower benefits on their children to give them more opportunities….. Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation, as a tour through the world’s poorest regions makes clear.
I suspect David Brooks will vote for Mitt Romney, but he must have realized as he wrote this column that everything Romney doesn’t know – Barack Obama fully understands.
Ross Douthat may understand, too. Perhaps that’s why he prefers to change the subject.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com