I know a gaffe when I see one, having made many myself, and Romney’s 47 percent remark was no gaffe. It was an expression of a belief so deeply held, and so thoroughly validated in the circles in which Romney travels, that it required no fact-checking. Add to that the tin ear that allowed the Republican party’s stalwart to be photographed at his vacation estate, and to claim that his support of the auto industry is demonstrated by the fact that his wife drives two Cadillacs, and you have a prescription for electoral disaster. Hence his claim, made to a group of supporters at a private meeting in affluent Boca Raton, that 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes and are “dependent on the government.”
First, what the Obama-leaning media call the 47 percent gaffe: Romney is right that about half of Americans pay no income taxes (he put the figure at 47 percent, the precise figure is 46.4 percent), he was wrong to fail to mention that 28.3% are working and have highly regressive payroll taxes deducted from their pay checks, 10.3 percent pay no taxes because they are retired and living on social security benefits they paid for throughout their working lives, 6.9 percent earn less than $20,000 annually, and thousands of soldiers in combat zones are exempt from income taxes. That’s virtually all of Romney’s 47 percent. To say that these people refuse to “take personal responsibility” for their lives borders on calumny.
There is worse. Romney, who seeks the Reagan mantle, should have known—or at least been told—that it was past Republican presidents (Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush) who lopped low earners off the income tax rolls so that they would keep more of their wages and therefore have a greater incentive to find work. One device that accomplishes that objective, the earned-income tax credit, was called by President Reagan “one of the best anti-poverty programs the world has ever seen.” This is an area where fairness meets efficiency, not one to be sloughed off as promoting dependency.
Now, to those who are “dependent on government.” This figure has some basis in fact, since 49 percent of Americans live in a household with at least one person receiving some government benefits. But it is a long jump from that to the Romney’s assertion that these people won’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” The 49 percent includes recipients of social security, Medicaid, and Medicare, veterans’ benefits and unemployment insurance. To treat the entire group as “takers” rather than “makers,” as some Republicans are doing is, at the very least, nonsense.
It is not, as Mark Twain mistakenly believed Disraeli to have said, that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. It is not that the income and tax statistics that are false, but that politicians often attempt to torture them until they will say anything, or even if honest are blinded by ideology to the need for careful analysis and truthful presentation.
The media, overwhelmingly biased in Obama’s favor, are convinced Romney’s “gaffe” will have an enduring effect and be reflected in his vote tally. But with three presidential debates coming up and the race tight that is far from certain. What is certain is that Romney has distracted attention from a serious debate that the country should be having between a Democratic candidate who believes in expanding the welfare state and the role of government in the lives of its citizens, and a Republican candidate who believes that increased dependency on government saps individual initiative and cannot be afforded by a nation already in debt.
In an attempt to calm the media storm, Romney admitted that he had “inelegantly” stated what he considers to be a correct distinction between himself and Obama. “I think a society based upon a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that’s the wrong course for America….The president’s approach is attractive to people who are not paying taxes because frankly my discussion about lowering taxes isn’t as attractive to them….And those that are dependent upon government and those that think government’s job is to redistribute, I’m not going to get them.”