The 47% Fallout: Romney’s Class Warfare Comments Spell His Doom

Ken AshfordElection 2012Leave a Comment

Well, here's the Mother Jones version of the video:


For those who have been under a rock the past 18 hours, the controversy is this: During a private fundraiser earlier this year, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told a small group of wealthy contributors what he truly thinks of all the voters who support President Barack Obama. He dismissed these Americans as freeloaders who pay no taxes, who don't assume responsibility for their lives, and who think government should take care of them. Fielding a question from a donor about how he could triumph in November, Romney replied:

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.

Romney went on: "[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

This is not a slip of the tongue. I's just another iteration of his dogwhistling welfare queen campaign — i.e., a theory that’s widespread on the right: Democrats are trying to encourage dependency on government for the explicit purpose of enlarging the pool of voters who can be relied upon to vote Democratic for the rest of their lives, in order to preserve the government handouts they enjoy.

The problem is… and conservatives seem to be slow on picking this up… Romney is literally saying that nearly half the country is a bunch of parasites and moochers.

The Obama campaign responded, of course: “It’s shocking that a candidate for President of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare to a group of wealthy donors that half the American people  view themselves as ‘victims,’ entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to take ‘personal responsibility’ for their lives,” Jim Messina, Obama for America campaign manager, said in a statement on Monday. “It’s hard to serve as president for all Americans when you’ve disdainfully written off half the nation.” Messina also sent out a late-night fundraising e-mail based on the videos, headlined: “You won’t believe this.”

But the statement was hardly needed.

Now, before I get to Romney's response in his hastily-called press conference last night, let me address a couple of things — and these involve facts and arithmetic, so low-information readers can tune out.

First, let's look at this 47% figure. The 47 percent figure is misleading because it applies narrowly to federal income tax. It excludes much more regressive state taxes, federal payroll taxes, and other revenue categories. And no, those 47 percent of people who effectively pay no federal income taxes aren't diehard Democrats. They're seniors to a large extent, as well as students, the disabled, the working poor, and the unemployed from across the political spectrum. Some are even extremely wealthy investors. In 2011, 7,000 millionaires paid no income tax.


Part of the reason so many Americans don't pay federal income taxes is that Republicans have passed a series of very large tax cuts that wiped out the income-tax liability for many Americans. That's why, when you look at graphs of the percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes, you see huge jumps after Ronald Reagan's 1986 tax reform and George W. Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. So whenever you hear that half of Americans don't pay federal income taxes, remember: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush helped build that.

That said, Americans pay more than income taxes, including the fabled 47%.  There's sales taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes, etc.  Congressional Budget Office data show that the poorest fifth of households paid an average of 4.0 percent of their incomes in federal taxes in 2007, the latest year for which these data are available — not an insignificant amount given how modest these households’ incomes are; the poorest fifth of households had average income of $18,400 in 2007. The next-to-the bottom fifth — those with incomes between $20,500 and $34,300 in 2007 — paid an average of 10.6 percent of their incomes in federal taxes.

Moreover, even these figures greatly understate low-income households’ total tax burden because these households also pay substantial state and local taxes. Data from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy show that the poorest fifth of households paid a stunning 12.3 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes in 2011.

When all federal, state, and local taxes are taken into account, the bottom fifth of households pays about 16 percent of their incomes in taxes, on average. The second-poorest fifth pays about 21 percent. (FYI: Romney's income tax paid in 2010 was 13.9%)

But the bottom line is this: when ALL taxes are taken into account (not just income tax), the American tax code as a whole is almost perfectly flat.  

Secondly, the idea that non-income-taxpayers are all Obama voters is simply wrong.  In fact, where are these non-income-taxpayers located?


That's right — the people Romney was talking about tend to be in red states!


Okay.  So Romney came out at a hurried press conference, looking disheveled.  And here's how it went:


He didn't apologize, although he claimed that what he was saying was not "elegant".  And he's more or less sticking to his claim.

Indeed, David.

This story has legs, and it will kill Romney.  

There was a time when he accused Obama of trying to start class warfare.  That point is lost in a sea of hypocrisy.  Romney, before a group of $50,000-a-plate donors just dissed half the country (the poorer half).

It tells you how badly Romney has erred that one of the more eloquent rebuttals to the Romney video comes from David Brooks:

This [Romney] comment suggests a few things. First, it suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?

It suggests that Romney doesn’t know much about the culture of America. Yes, the entitlement state has expanded, but America remains one of the hardest-working nations on earth. Americans work longer hours than just about anyone else. Americans believe in work more than almost any other people. Ninety-two percent say that hard work is the key to success, according to a 2009 Pew Research Survey….

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.

Josh Barro  at Bloomberg:

You can mark my prediction now: A secret recording from a closed-door Mitt Romney fundraiser, released today by David Corn at Mother Jones, has killed Mitt Romney's campaign for president. […]

Romney already has trouble relating to the public and convincing people he cares about them. Now, he's been caught on video saying that nearly half the country consists of hopeless losers.

Romney has been vigorously denying President Obama's claims that his tax plan would raise taxes on the middle class. Now, he's been caught on video suggesting that low- and middle-income Americans are undertaxed.

Mark Halperin's take:

This story has secret video (not all of which has been aired yet!); ridiculous, explosive soundbites; controversy; an outraged opposition; and a lot of spinoff angles (reporting galore on income and tax figures; reporting galore on by whom the video was taken; endless speculation/reporting about what Romney really meant, what comparable things he’s said in the past, including at other closed fundraisers, etc).

This is politically devastating because it plays into people’s preconceived notions of Romney as Monty Burns+Thurston Howell.

Joan Walsh at Salon:

Particularly when he rails against the “dependent,” Romney is talking about his older white base, which is dependent on Social Security and Medicare and doesn’t want either program touched. But this is why Romney has had a hard time closing the deal with white working class voters, and the video isn’t going to help. He’s an equal opportunity class warrior: he disdains everyone who is struggling.

Amol Rajan at The Independent:

Mitt Romney’s campaign strategy seems to be twofold: make life as hard as possible for your most devoted followers; convince everybody else that you’re the stereotypical and heartless capitalist brute of Democrat caricature. In the past 24 hours, he’s executed this strategy very effectively.

Me?  I say he's toast.