Let's go back to May, to Boca Raton Florida, to the mansion of Sun Capital private equity magnate Marc Leder:
Mitt Romney is trying to raise money. He is speaking to those who have paid $50,000 a plate. He is telling them that he will do his part and speak to America. And he is telling them that he needs them to give a lot more money so that he can run enough ads to win:
MITT ROMNEY: Frankly, what do I need you to do? Just to raise millions of dollars, because the president's going to have about $800 to $900 million. That is by far the most important thing you can do.
FEMALE VOICE: Is find (UNINTEL).
MITT ROMNEY: You don't have the capacity to speak to hundreds of thousands of people. I will be in those debates. There will be 150 million Americans watching me. If I do well, it will help. If I don't, it won't help.
MALE VOICE: Your debates are incredible. (APPLAUSE)
MITT ROMNEY: Thank you. Advertising makes a difference. The president will engage in a personal character assassination campaign, and so we will have to fire back: one, on defense; and two, on offense. That will take money. You will see the ads here in Florida. It will be one of those states that is a key state. All the money will get spent in ten states. And this is one of them.
Then Romney talks about how they will get a good return on their investment in his campaign. He is, he says, (i) not yet well-known and still (ii) nearly tied with the President in the polls--and that is good news for his odds of winning in November:
The best thing I can ask you to do--sure, talk to people and tell them how you know me: word of mouth makes a big difference. I'm not terribly well known by the general American culture because we don't…
FEMALE VOICE: You're known as a rich boy. I mean they say: "He's a rich boy".
MITT ROMNEY: But don't worry. Given all…
FEMALE VOICE: You're not.
MITT ROMNEY: Given all those negative things, the fact is that I am either tied or close to the president. He is out there talking about the one year anniversary of Osama bin Laden being captured, about unemployment coming down, he's unleashing his campaign--and we are still sort of tied. That is very interesting…
Then one of the guests tries to take control of the conversation. He berates Mitt Romney for not doing enough to aggressively tell the American people that Obama has broken the economy, and for not telling the American people are really lucky to have industrial statesmen--like Mitt Romney and the guests at the fundraiser--around, with an added a dollop of self-pity from the floor about how the life of a rich man is and how ungrateful everybody is:
MALE VOICE: I-would disagree with that. I think a lot of young children coming out of college feel they were let down by the president. And they feel that there's not a job out there for them. And it was $60,000, now they're making $30,000. You know, very similar to the (UNINTEL). You know, on (UNINTEL).
MITT ROMNEY: Yeah, yeah.
MALE VOICE: My question to you is: Why don't you stick up for yourself? To me you should be so proud of your (UNINTEL).
FEMALE VOICE: Right.
MALE VOICE: That's what we all aspire to be (UNINTEL) ourselves. We don't really (UNINTEL). We are away from our families five days a week. I am away from my four girls and my wife five days a week and my wife. Why not stick up for yourself and say: "Why is it bad to aspire to be wealthy and successful?" You know: "Why is it bad to kill yourself working? And why is it bad to cut 30 jobs that net 300?" You know, when you are cutting jobs. You see companies that were failing in (UNINTEL PHRASE). So my question is: when does that, you know, doing? (UNINTEL PHRASE).
MITT ROMNEY: Well, I am--
MALE VOICE: (UNINTEL) set (UNINTEL PHRASE). (UNINTEL PHRASE) neighborhood. And what can we (UNINTEL) up for nothing to (UNINTEL) president's success story (UNINTEL) yours, so--?
So Romney tries to regain control of the room:
MITT ROMNEY: If you heard in my speech tonight, I talked to them again. But I didn't…
MALE VOICE: UNINTEL… Oh, you weren't here.
MALE VOICE: He came here early, so he was (UNINTEL PHRASE).
Romney says that he is pushing that message. He says that the President is a bad man for not recognizing how lucky America is to have its current crop of industrial statesmen. And he says that the President is a bad man for dividing America based on envy of the successful. But, Romney tries to say, he has to choose a form of the message that resonates with undecided voters:
MITT ROMNEY: In every stump speech that I give, I speak about the fact that people who dream and achieve enormous success do not make us poorer. They make us better off. And the Republican audience that I typically speak to gets that. I said that tonight and the media was there. And they write about it. They say that Romney defends success in America, and dreamers, and so forth. So they write about it.
But in terms of what gets through to the American consciousness, I have very little influence on that at this stage as to what they write about. What will happen: We'll have three debates. We'll have a chance to talk about that in the debates. There will be ads which attack me.
I will fire back in a way that describes--in the best way we can--the fact that if the theme of my speeches--you know, the ambassador heard me today several time--I wind up talking about how the thing which I find most disappointing in this president is his attack of one America against another America.
FEMALE VOICE: Yes.
MITT ROMNEY: The division of America, based on going after those who have been successful. And then I quote Marco Rubio. I say, "Marco Rubio"I think I said it at the fundraising event earlier today in Jacksonville. I just said:
Senator Rubio says when he grew up here poor, that they looked at people that had a lot of wealth. And his parents never once said, 'We need some of what they have. They should give us some.' Instead they said, 'If we work hard and go to school, someday we might be able to have that.'
I will continue to do that.
But, Romney says, the message is hard to transmit:
How much of that gets picked up? There are so many things that don't get picked up in a campaign because people aren't watching it. By the way, most people don't watch during the summer. We're gonna go into a season here, starting from mid-June, of almost no attention paid. Then, after Labor Day, in September and October, that's when it'll get going.
And the audience criticizes him for not trying hard enough to make Americans recognize how lucky they are to be living in this Second Gilded Age, and how they should envy the rich less, work harder, and recognize that if they are poor it is their own fault:
MALE VOICE: For the past three years, all everybody's been told is, "Don't worry. We'll take care of it." How are we gonna do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you've gotta take care of yourself?
Romney tries agaon to explain that he has to choose a form of the message that resonates with undecided voters. But instead of talking about who the undecided voters are and what arguments are persuasive to them, he gets distracted. He begins characterizing what he thinks the Democratic base is, and why his message does not resonate with the Democratic base:
MITT ROMNEY: Well, there are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right? There are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe 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. It's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. I mean the president starts off with 48%, 49%, 40--he starts off with a huge number.
Then Romney gives what he thinks is the ultimate argument for why the rich-envying Democratic base will not vote for him:
These are people who pay no income tax. 47% 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". That's what they sell every four years.
Then Romney's brain is supposed to say: "I cannot get the Democratic base to vote for me: they won't. I need to focus on the swing voters". It begins to pivot:
And so my job is not to worry about those people.
But it doesn't succeed. When Romney's brain hits the phrase "those people", it goes off message. It switches tracks. It jumps from what it is supposed to say--"I can't worry about getting their votes: I need to focus on the undecideds"--to what it actually, deep down, believes:
I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for for their lives.
Then Romney realizes what his brain has done, and wrestles it back onto the message track:
What I have to do is convince the 5% to 10% 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. What it looks like. When you ask those people--we do all these polls. I find it amazing. We poll all these people to see where you stand in the polls…
What Mitt Romney has just said is that 47% of Americans pay no taxes, subsist off of government benefits, take no responsibility for their lives, are moochers, and make up a solid Democratic Party base. He has just said that he cannot worry about them for two reasons: (i) they will never vote for him, and (i) they will never straighten up and fly right.
Now Romney was never supposed to say or think this.
Romney was--along with those at the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere who made up the "lucky duckies" meme--supposed to know that it was not true. It was supposed to be what the writers at the WSJ call "boob bait for the bubbas": misinformation that has two purposes: (i) to get some low-information voters to open their wallets to Republican candidates; and (ii) to confuse others, so that they will vote for Republican politicians who will cut programs they rely on for their place in the middle-class, and use the money to fund more tax cuts for the rich.
We know this because of the care with which the 47% talking point was constructed:
Last year 47% of tax units paid no net federal income taxes.
Low-information voters are supposed to hear this and process it as "47% pay no taxes" and conclude "they--not me--are moochers!"
Republican operatives and candidates are supposed to know that almost every word in "last year 47% of tax units paid no net federal income taxes" is necessary for the deception. "Last year" because right now the share of taxpayers is far below normal because of the lesser depression--and that is a good thing. "Tax units" because we are talking not about a share of Americans but rather of pieces of paper flowing through the IRS. "Federal" because lots of people pay state and local taxes. "Income" because lots of people pay payroll taxes. "Net" because for historical reasons we channel our Child and Earned Income Tax Credits--programs loved by, among others, Ronald Reagan--through the IRS rather than through HHS.
Omit any of those words, and the 47% figure becomes a lie.
And in the form that it was intended to be received--as "47% pay no taxes, the moochers!" it is a lie.
Of the 47%, 7% points are there because of the Lesser Depression. Of the remaining 40% points, 6% points are non-elderly with incomes under $20,000/year--people who are not supposed to be paying income taxes. Of the remaining 34% points, 8% are elderly--people who are also simply not supposed to be paying income taxes at all. Of the remaining 26% points, 24% points are workers paying payroll and other taxes who are receiving the CTC and the EITC, and hence not owing "net taxes" to the IRS. That leaves 2% points.
Romney's claim that the Republican message of income tax cuts focused on the rich does not resonate for these 47% seems to me to be largely wrong.
But Romney's claim that these 47% are "moochers" who will never have personal responsibility or care for their lives is simply insane.
So how did Romney come to think that:
- The Democratic base is 47%.
- These 47% are the same 47% who don't pay taxes.
- These 47% will never have a sense of personal responsibility.
- These 47% will never care for their lives.
I am thinking that there were lots and lots of conversations over the years about "those people", and how they do not care about their lives, and about how they have no sense of personal responsibility, and about how they envy the rich. I am thinking of right-wing science fiction novels that preach about how by the middle of the 21st century the United States was divided into "citizens" and "taxpayers"--with the unproductive, lazy, uneducated masses of the first penned into their ghettoes and living off of the second. I am thinking that, as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it: we are all welfare queens now. I am thinking that Romney and his speechwriters have spent much, much, much too much time at the American Enterprise Institute where, the General Theory of Moocherhood, as Mark Schmitt puts it, is being developed.
As Mark Schmitt writes, Arthur Brooks and Nicholas Eberstadt of the AEI paint a fake picture in which:
receipt of benefits makes people “dependents,” that people are becoming “chiselers,” choosing to maximize benefits, that the expansion of entitlements was a political effort by the left that slowly overcame “resistance” from real Americans…
while in fact:
people who receive benefits are no more or less “dependent” than corporations that get tax breaks or legal protections, that the expanding costs of major entitlements are about rising health care costs and, to a lesser extent, the demographics of an aging nation rather than more people becoming “takers,” and that the expansion of some benefits to the lower rungs of the middle class was a bipartisan project in which conservatives should take pride…
We are, overwhelmingly, both contributors to and drawers on the national treasure--that is what it is to be a citizen.
There should have been people to deprogram Mitt Romney when he began to fall victim to this AEI cult. Wall Street Journal editorialists should have warned him not to confuse the "prolefeed" they distribute with the way the world actually works. Economic advisors like Eddie Lazear ought to have straightened him out about the state of the labor market, while Harvey Rosen and Greg Mankiw ought to have convinced him that you would not expect Social Security recipients to pay income taxes. Somebody should have told Mitt Romney that roughly half of those who are currently paying no income taxes will vote for him in November.
Does Romney spend so little time talking to real policy advisors that these issues never came up?
Does Romney suffer from CEO disease to such an extent that pointing out that he believes something that is not true is such a career-limiting view that nobody dares do it?
Whatever: in this case one of the con artists has managed to get himself conned.
Still, this has made me unhappy. This episode has raised the chances of an Obama administration, and that is good. But this episode has also greatly lowered my expectations of what a Romney administration would be like, and we still might well have a Romney administration.
So it is more important than ever to work very hard to make sure that we do not.