The video currently doing the rounds in which Mitt Romney writes off 47% of the electorate as never going to vote for him because they’re “dependent upon government” looks rather like his “bitter gun clingers” moment. As with Romney’s remarks, Obama made his notorious claim to what he assumed was a “friendly” audience at a fundraiser during the 2008 primary campaign. Conservatives seized on Obama’s words as evidence of his innermost beliefs and his disdain for Middle America, and many thought they would handicap him in the general election. We know how that turned out.
The left is now crowing that Romney’s “revealing” gaffe has all but handed the election to Obama, and of course the big difference is that Romney’s remarks are sure to get a lot more coverage than Obama’s ever did. But while he’s being hammered on this by Democrats and their MSM allies, Romney can and should turn the situation to his advantage. His campaign quickly put out a statement in a bid to clarify his remarks, but Romney should go further and use this opportunity to rekindle the debate about the whole issue of entitlements and dependency on government.
As several commentators have pointed out, Romney’s numbers are muddled. He appears to be conflating the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income taxes (although, as Patrick Brennan points out at The Corner, many of that group do pay other taxes) with the 47% of voters that, as Jay Cost has noted, roughly constitute the “floor” of support for Democratic presidential candidates.
While a large portion of that 47% base vote does indeed depend on the government, either for entitlements or a job, it also includes blacks, Hispanics, single women, and various other “victim” groups (there’s obviously some overlap between those groups and recipients of entitlements) plus wealthy Hollywood types, along with many voters who don’t depend on the government for anything and who don’t belong to any particular constituency. While Democrats do have an advantage among poor Americans on food stamps and other benefits, that group also includes senior citizens on Social Security who tend to favor Republicans, and middle class parents getting tax credits who split their vote between the parties. However, Romney’s figures aren’t that important here – he was generalizing to a sympathetic audience who knew where he was coming from. What’s more disappointing about his remarks is the suggestion that he’s given up any hope of reaching out to those Americans who rely on the government for various forms of welfare, notwithstanding the fact that some of them do actually vote Republican. While his comments about the mindset of many of those individuals are not necessarily wrong, rather than writing them off he should be placing the blame for creating that mentality squarely where it belongs, by pointing out how Democrats have spent the past 60-plus years cynically and methodically hooking millions of Americans on welfare in order to secure their vote. At the same time, Romney should articulate a positive message for those on welfare, encompassing not only his plans for jobs and the economy (we’d all like to hear more detail on those subjects) but other issues that impact on poverty and dependency, such as education reform. He should also talk about the moral implications of mass dependency, as well as the economic ones, and the countervailing benefits of what Arthur Brooks calls “earned success.”
Conservative pundits and grassroots Republicans have been urging Romney to make this campaign about big ideas, not just about policy differences; about the choices America faces, and about the philosophical differences between the parties. There were signs that Romney was ready to have that debate when he tapped Paul Ryan to be his running mate, but that early optimism has yet to be borne out. Of course, if Romney does choose to engage on the issue he’ll have to do so over the heads of the media, in speeches, in interviews, and in the upcoming debates.
Obama’s “bitter gun clingers” remark didn’t end up doing him any harm, and there’s no reason why Romney’s far less offensive – and far less revealing – words should hurt him. But he needs to get the message out that it’s Democrats (not Republicans) who have effectively written off millions of Americans – including vast numbers from the interest groups they claim to champion – by consigning them to a life of dependency while expecting them to troop loyally to the polls every two years.