By Ernest Corea
“Stop it.” That was Ann Romney’s peremptory order to her husband’s Republican Party critics, when she was recently interviewed by Radio Iowa. The wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney came across like a highly strung nanny ticking off a rumbustious bunch of rich kids at a summer picnic.
In fairness to Mrs. Romney, however, her lack of experience has obviously moved her towards breaking point as she surveys the fallout from the bombshell that current affairs magazine Mother Jones dropped on the Romney campaign.
Let’s pay attention to the rest of what Ann Romney said: “This is hard. You want to try it? Get in the ring,…This is hard and, you know, it’s an important thing that we’re doing right now and it’s an important election and it is time for all Americans to realise how significant this election is and how lucky we are to have someone with Mitt’s qualifications and experience and know-how to be able to have the opportunity to run this country.”
Oh dear. What a heavy burden of righteous indignation the Romneys have had to bear.
The starting point of all this – and more – was the exposure by Mother Jones of a secretly taped video which captured Romney dismissing almost half the national electorate as non-tax-paying, entitlement obsessed, dependent, victimhood-oriented scroungers. In other words, a set of good-for-nothing bums. He also saw them as irredeemable Obama voters. Republicans were among the harshest critics of those callous sentiments.
The Entitlement Class
In his own words, when a donor at a ritzy fundraising event asked him how he could defeat President Barack Obama, Romney replied: “Well, 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– that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they’re entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it. But that’s– it’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.
And– and– I mean the president starts off with 48 percent, 49 percent, 40– or he– he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every – every four years.
And – and 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.”
Romney made this and other comments to a gaggle of big money donors assembled at the Florida home of one of them. Waiters moved smoothly among the assembled guests, and the sound of liquids gurgling down from bottles into glasses could be heard during a Q and A session that was surreptitiously taped and turned into a video which was “scooped” by David Corn of Mother Jones and Michael Isikoff of NBC.
By a delicious irony, James Carter IV, a grandson of President Jimmy Carter, whom the Republicans have been vilifying at every turn, is said to have been instrumental in creating the video and making it available to the two well-known and highly regarded investigative reporters.
Romney’s approach suggests a divisive, class-conscious mind-set. The basis of Romney’s analysis is that “those people” (the 47 percent) are among society’s less well-off. “Those people” are by definition, in Romney’s view, automatic Obama voters. “Those people” consider themselves victims. “Those people” cannot be persuaded to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” “Those people” include the kind that Romney had in mind when he said earlier in the campaign. “I’m not concerned about the very poor.”
(Romney was making wild and false generalisations. There are many millionaires who don’t pay any income tax, and do so quite legally. Not all those who do not pay tax support Obama. Many of them are seniors who veer towards Romney. He was not concerned with such nuances. He was simply dismissing all “those people.”)
The remaining 53 percent consists of “us”, like the folk who gathered to hear Romney soliciting financial support. They are Romney voters, already or potentially. In drawing this distinction between the better endowed and less endowed, Romney was engaging in a kind of class-based politics that is irresponsible and divisive.
Several Americans did not pay federal income tax in 2011 because their income was below the taxable level. However, even “those people” who are exempt from income tax pay other taxes, such as the payroll tax which supports the Social Security and Medicare systems. Others are seniors who paid into the system when they were younger and part of the work force, as well as the unemployed and the underemployed with meager incomes.
“When all federal, state and local taxes are taken into account, the bottom fifth of households pays about 16 percent of their income on taxes, on average,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Freeloaders? Perhaps the Romney campaign needs to buy a new dictionary ahead of the candidates’ debates in October.
And, of course, Romney had comments on other issues, too. He said that he would have an easier path to victory if he were a Mexican, that ignorant and uneducated people migrate to the US, and that if the Hispanics continue to vote for Democrats as African-Americans do, there would be serious consequences for the nation.
Romney was at yet another fundraiser when his taped comments were zinging their way through cyberspace and he left his guests to meet the press, briefly He did not challenge the authenticity of his comments as published. In fact, his answers confirmed their accuracy. He was, however, self-critical about his speaking style at the Florida dinner.
“This is the same message I give to people,” Romney said of his derisive comments about the 47 percent. He claimed that his delivery was poor. “It’s not elegantly stated, let me put it that way.” He added that he was “speaking off the cuff in response to a question and, I’m sure I can say it more clearly”. He suggested, as well, that whoever made the secret taping should release the full version.
Romney’s views drew both support and rejection from among Republicans. Those who dismissed his views erupted with criticism – some angry, some irritated, and others scornful. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan agreed that Romney had been inarticulate. Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, one of several Republicans who distanced themselves from Romney’s opinions, said:” That’s not the way I view the world. As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in.”
Others piled on. These are the words of a “sneering plutocrat” was one of the kinder criticisms tossed around. Peggy Noonan President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter and an iconic figure among Republicans wrote: “This is not how big operatives talk, it’s how shallow campaign operatives talk.” Subsequently, she added: “This week I called it incompetent, but only because I was being polite. I really meant rolling calamity.” Bill Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard described Romney’s comments as “arrogant and stupid.”
David Brooks, a conservative columnist, wrote in The New York Times that “as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.”
Joe Scarborough, formerly a Republican Congressman and currently a television commentator, said: “This is one of the worst weeks for a presidential candidate in a general election that any of us can remember.”
Democrats appeared content to watch the Republicans have a go at themselves while observing the action with some satisfaction from the sidelines.
So what does all this mean? Is it a case of “Mitt is down now, out looms next” as a pithy headline suggested? Not really. The end game is the election of Nov. 6 itself and not the run up to it.
The conventional wisdom is that whichever candidate has a lead in September goes on to victory in November. Several polls show that Obama who had been tied with Romney has now opened a slight lead. The highly regarded Pew Research Center reported on Sept. 19 that a survey of “likely voters” had Obama leading Romney by 8 points; 51:43. In the Electoral College vote, polls show Obama leading Romney 243:191, with a total of 270 required for victory. Nevertheless, on the quicksand of politics, predictions are dangerous. Anything can happen and often does.
Romney and his top staff might reinvent his campaign. Romney might score a knockout blow in the first candidates’ debate on Oct. 3, sending the polls into a tailspin. The much vaunted “October surprise” might actually pop up next month. Obama’s team might falter. There is time enough in the weeks ahead for the advantage that Obama currently shows in some polls to be less than stable. Who can tell?
Irrespective of who wins the presidential election, Romney’s demeaning dismissal of almost half the voting public will not be easily forgotten. For months, political observers have said that Romney has not shared his core beliefs with the people whose votes he seeks. Now, perhaps, the “real Romney” has stood up, and his core beliefs lie exposed. Not pretty.
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.