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Mitt Romney and the 47 Percent

Hmm, maybe it isn’t too early to declare Romney’s candidacy dead after all. Mother Jones has just unearthed a video of Romney, at a fundraiser earlier this year, saying: 

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. Forty-seven percent of Americans [quibble: it’s actually 46 percent] pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. So he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not. 

This video clarifies some terminology that Romney has used elsewhere.

1.) “Obama’s base.” Romney caught hell from me, Tom Edsall, and some others last month when he demagogued an offer by the Obama administration to allow states to find new ways to fulfill the work requirement in the welfare-reform law. It sure looked like Romney was reaching into the Willie Horton race-baiting playbook. One of the things that set me off was that Romney told USA Today that Obama had approved the policy in order to “shore up his base.” I read that to mean Romney was saying people on welfare constitute Obama’s base, and that sounded to me like an ugly racial slur. (As I explained in my earlier item, there aren't enough people on welfare to constitute a plausible electoral base for anyone; the entire caseload’s about two million people.) Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul, however, said that Romney wasn’t referring to welfare recipients as Obama’s base; he was referring to liberals as his base. But the above comments make clear that Romney meant what it sounded at the time that he meant: welfare recipients (along with lower-income people who work but have the temerity not to earn enough to pay income tax) are Obama's base.

2.) “Broaden the tax base.” Romney, when he talks about his tax plan (the one he’s lately stopped talking about) uses the phrase “broaden the tax base” to describe how he's going to pay for 20 percent cuts on all marginal rates, elimination of the inheritance tax, and a scaling back of investment taxes, including the capital gains tax. He says he’ll eliminate tax deductions and exclusions to pay for all that, but he’d have to raise so much revenue that he’d have to go after some pretty popular ones, like the mortgage interest deduction and the health care exclusion. Romney has dealt with this difficulty by refusing to say which tax breaks he’d eliminate. Romney has more or less given up trying to explain how he can implement his tax plan without raising taxes on “middle class” incomes below a threshold of $200,000 to $250,000 (a calculation at odds even with a highly sympathetic analysis by Harvard’s Martin Feldstein). 

But what if Romney has other ideas about “broadening the base”? The phrase, as I explained in April, is more typically used by Republicans to describe putting Americans who earn too little to pay income tax—“lucky duckies,” in the Dickensian parlance of the Wall Street Journal editorial page—back onto the rolls. This idea has become increasingly respectable within the GOP, and in April House Majority Leader Eric Cantor attracted surprisingly little attention when he declared himself in favor of it. (If Grover Norquist has weighed in on whether a lucky ducky tax would violate his taxpayer protection pledge, I have yet to hear it. Perhaps he would argue that it protects taxpayers, not non-taxpayers, though of course the working poor still pay plenty of payroll tax.)

This GOP meme—which Romney has yet to endorse publicly, but seems to be endorsing here—is, among other things, a betrayal of a conservative invention: the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC was created by Sen. Russell Long D., La. (who in spite of being Huey Long’s son was pretty conservative); greatly expanded under Ronald Reagan; and then expanded yet again under Bill Clinton. The idea was that you should reward the “deserving” working poor, as opposed to the un-deserving poor on welfare. But after Clinton ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996 it got harder to scapegoat welfare recipients. So conservatives decided, what the hell, there are no deserving poor. As Romney says in the video above, poor folks who pay no taxes (on income earned from—remember—working!) don’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Shame on him.

(One conservative who, to his great credit, doesn't buy into this crap, and the stupid political “tipping point” analysis that goes with it, is Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review.)