Mitt Romney probably never thought he’d have to defend remarks he made privately to a group of campaign contributors in May, virtually writing off votes from the 47 percent of Americans who get government benefits while paying no federal income taxes and thus are more likely to support his opponent, President Obama. Thanks to digital technology, a video of his appearance did get out and now he has to make the best of the situation.
There was an immediate outburst of revulsion from groups supportive of the government programs the Republican nominee berated, but many others agree with the proposition that the “nanny state” has gotten out of hand. Romney’s challenge is to clarify the exact meaning of his comments. The raw numbers he presented suggest a potential advantage for his side if he makes his case effectively. If the 53 percent who do pay income taxes vote for him, he’ll defeat the incumbent president.
It’s not that simple, of course. Plenty of taxpayers concur with the president that part of their money should go to humanitarian services. And some of those who depend on government assistance would rather get off the dole and find their way to self-sufficiency. Maybe that’s why a poor state like Kentucky, with a disproportionate segment of its population dependent on federal checks, favors Romney over Obama.
Many of those who make too little money to owe federal income taxes are retirees on Social Security and Medicare. Surely the GOP candidate did not intend to cede their votes to the president. Older people who’ve spent most of their lives paying Social Security and Medicare taxes aren’t “dependents.” To the contrary, they’re debt-collectors who lent the government money from every paycheck in full expectation that they’d get their due when their turn arrived. It’s not their fault that politicians mismanaged their money and used some of it for other purposes. The debt stands, and Washington should take it every bit as seriously as what’s owed to China and other creditors who’ve cashed in on America’s regrettable new role as the world’s biggest debtor nation.
Perhaps the country would have been better off in the long run if President Roosevelt, in crafting Social Security, had created it as a personal savings program, underwritten by the government, rather than one that compensates retirees out of current payments from active workers. But that’s water under the bridge. The generation now easing into retirement had no choice but to participate in the mandatory system and it expects politicians to uphold the contract. Future updates necessitated by changing demographics should not come at the expense of current beneficiaries.
It’s significant that, while lambasting freeloaders in the system, Romney still hasn’t provided full disclosure of what he has and hasn’t paid in federal income taxes. Now more than ever, he needs to come clean and let the voters decide for themselves whether he’s contributed his fair share. The fact that he denounced the culture of dependency while addressing a group of well-heeled political donors only reinforces the perception of elitism.
Romney’s task now is to speak directly to the rest of us and elucidate how he’ll bring dependency back within bounds while recognizing that there’s nothing wrong with depending on government to keep its promises. Democrats, meanwhile, should not assume we’re suckers for any demagoguery they mount in response to this GOP embarrassment. There’s plenty of political skullduggery on both sides.