“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 that 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.”
-- Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaking at a May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla. in a video obtained by liberal magazine Mother Jones.
Political pundits are comparing the leaked video of Mitt Romney at a fundraiser writing off the 47 percent of the electorate who don’t pay federal income taxes to the leaked 2008 fundraiser video of then-Sen. Barack Obama blaming his problems in the Pennsylvania Democratic Primary on bitter voters who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them.”
But while Obama was talking about something in contradiction to his campaign message – talking down the very voters he was trying to persuade to come to his side – Romney was actually on message, just in more blunt fashion than usual.
In his secretly recorded fundraiser comments, Obama was saying that he needed to convince the bitter clingers that he really was on their side and show them that he would increase taxes on what even back then he was calling the “1 percent” in order to provide them more generous benefits.
Obama’s message was that he could show blue-collar voters that he was on their side with his message about tax increases and make them overcome their own racist or xenophobic tendencies. He could win them over with promises of government spending. He partly succeeded with the bitter clingers in 2008 but his party failed in 2010.
Romney’s message, however, was that he won’t get the votes of the 47 percent who pay no federal income taxes and isn’t going to try. While Obama was explaining his bid to woo voters opposed to him and favorable to Hillary Clinton in the primary and a Republican candidate in the general election, Romney was explaining why he was writing off a huge chunk of the electorate.
And while Democrats may disagree with Romney about what motivates those who are bound to choose Obama, no one can disagree that he’s pretty close to right about the number and the fact that they aren’t coming over to the red side this year.
The current of Romney’s campaign is an idea that has long animated the American right: the makers versus the takers. Those who believe in smaller government are driven by the fear that government expansion is a perpetual-motion machine. The more people who receive benefits from the government, the more people who will vote for increased government benefits.
It’s a national version of the same one that has been playing out on the state and local level in recent years.
In Chicago, the public school union is on strike over some modest changes proposed by the city’s Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel. But the previous 30 years in the city have been largely a love affair between government worker unions and the Democratic politicians.
It has mostly worked well for both sides in Chicago and in Democrat-dominated cities and states across the country. Government-worker unions provide the funds and organization to elect Democrats, who in turn expand the pay, benefits and privileges of government union members. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But the cycle cannot go on forever. In California, Wisconsin, Michigan and many other states and cities, budgets eventually would not allow for this ongoing expansion, forcing a conflict between politicians and their patrons in government unions. In California, the future remains uncertain and hinges on a massive tax hike proposed by the Democratic governor. In Wisconsin and Michigan, Republican governors won reductions.
Romney is trying to expand that argument beyond the government workers fight. He is, in some moments at least, calling for a national referendum on the question of how much government we can afford, even if we like the benefits obtained from it.
In other moments, Romney seems to retreat into an argument basically about competency. Who is a better manager, him or Obama? Romney says he can manage better and should be given the big job on the grounds of competency alone.
But the video is evidence that there is an ideological current running through the former Massachusetts governors’ campaign – a current best exemplified in Romney’s decision to tap Paul Ryan as his running mate.
This idea about the dangers having too many citizens reliant on government outlays has animated Ryan’s entire career. Republicans like Ryan have long warned of a tipping-point moment in which Democrats will have included so many voters in federal benefits that there aren’t enough net contributors to vote in favor of reducing the size of government.
Romney and his campaign have seemed to back off that argument in their convention and subsequent campaigning, shifting back to the competency argument rather than the message that the country is heading off a cliff off government dependency that once breached, cannot be undone.
It’s an approach that carries the risk of a big defeat, but it’s still a better one for Romney. With the press talking endlessly about Romney gaffes and every bumble becoming a cause célèbre, Romney will lose the competency argument against the incumbent.
He has to make this a battle of ideas and visions. Picking Ryan was a step in that direction. He took another step Monday night when came out and owned the comments in the video. Rather than ducking or hiding, he owned it.
Perhaps with this video out and being replayed over and over again, Romney won’t be able to retreat from his embrace of boldness.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“The reason the administration is hanging on to this preposterous explanation it's all about the film that may not even exist is because they can't face the larger fact that this is an expression, both in the polls and in the riot a demonstration, of the collapse of Obama's Cairo doctrine speech he made the 4th of June, 2009, where he proclaimed new condition with Islam.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.