A few random thoughts (and some reporting) on Mitt Romney and the video.
First, what Mitt Romney was getting at – as opposed to what he actually said – is undeniably true as a broad observation: too many Americans are dependent, or partially dependent, on an expansive government. It's morally corrosive and fiscally unsustainable. Even as Romney’s campaign to date has focused almost exclusively on the short-term economy and unemployment rates, many conservatives have urged him to place this very basic truth at the center of his campaign. In that sense, it’s understandable that some Romney supporters are enthusiastic about the fact that it ended up there – however unintentional and however awkwardly.
But Romney's statement is wrong in many of its particulars—the 47 percent are not all dependent on government, they don't all think of themselves as victims, and they're certainly not all Obama supporters.
What happened, it seems, is that Romney combined a political argument with a substantive one. For months, Romney has been providing donors at these fundraisers with a version of what he said on the videotape. But, according to those who have heard him in these settings, he usually keeps his comments focused on politics. Romney tells donors that Obama will get 47 percent of the vote nationally regardless of what he does – those are the president's locked-in voters. Romney's share, he explains, is somewhere slightly below that number – he often uses 45 percent – and the election is essentially a battle for the rest.
The charitable view of Romney’s comments, then, is that he was simply musing aloud about his electoral prospects and got carried away.
But politicians are not judged on what they meant. It’s what they say that matters. And Romney here seems to be articulating a deeply pessimistic view of America and what makes it great.
“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 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.... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Those last two sentences are especially troubling. Romney seems to believe that those who are sucking at the public teat are forever destined to do so. "My job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
He is not saying that he’ll never convince these people that they should vote for him. He says, without qualification, that he’ll never convince them to take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
If Romney truly believes that, then he shouldn’t be running for president. If he is elected, one of his most important jobs will be to convince the American public, particularly those who have become too reliant on government, that they need to take personal responsibility for their lives.
But maybe Romney really does believe that nearly half of the country is irredeemable. There are echoes in Romney’s videotaped comments of Romney's statement that he's not worried about the "very poor" because they have a safety net. The very foundation of the American promise is upward mobility—the idea that anyone can succeed if he works hard enough to do so. This was, not incidentally, one of the major themes at the Republican convention in Tampa, with one speaker after another parading to the podium to share a story about his or her rise from poverty, etc. And it’s one of the main reasons that many movement conservatives are movement conservatives.