Let’s cut right to the chase. Is Mitt Romney’s caught-on-video denunciation of half of America worse than Barack Obama’s infamous “cling” comments of 2008, when he was similarly caught in flagrante? You bet it is. Not even close. The Romney video, brought to light by David Corn of Mother Jones, shows the candidate at his smug worst, while Obama was at least trying to express some empathy in his remarks. And while you never know with Romney whether he really believes something he says or is just trying to placate the audience before him, in this case it almost doesn’t matter. He’s made himself the avatar of the forces that do believe it.
For the record, just so you have it handy, here is the key passage, recorded as Romney spoke to well-heeled supporters earlier this year, after he’d secured the nomination: “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.”
I was surprised at my own reaction as I first read those words. I found myself taking personal offense. This is something I’ve never done as a political journalist. I just removed that instinct from my system years ago. I have two jobs, to give opinions and hopefully more-or-less accurate analysis. You think about things personally, you can’t do either one, especially the second. But as I read this, I thought: “You ignorant, pathetic man. I am none of those things.” And if I thought it—I who have trained myself never to have those thoughts—I can imagine what millions of others thought.
Can he really believe this? It’s incomprehensible. And yet it’s not. This is the story conservatives have been telling themselves over and over in the Tea Party age. All Democrats are moochers, and all moochers are Democrats. It has become an absolute article of faith among the kind of middle- and upper-middle-class people you see at Tea Party gatherings. More shockingly, conservative intellectuals spout this gibberish as well—for example, Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute.
But somehow I wouldn’t have thought the rich, the kind of people presumably at this fundraiser, really believed this stuff. Apparently they do. And it makes me think on balance that Romney, who by nature prefers believing nothing, has actually come to believe it too. An inevitable consequence, I suppose, of campaigning among these people for all these years. You marinate a cherry in cheap whiskey long enough, the stink attaches.
Obama’s 2008 comments, which sent the right into a blind rage, weren’t nearly as callous as this. Here they are, read them. He was trying to explain to well-heeled backers in San Francisco why working-class white people weren’t voting for him, and he basically said he understood why: “In a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, and they feel so betrayed by government, and when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, then a part of them just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism.” That’s empathy. If he’d said “angry” instead of “bitter” and “lean on” instead of “cling to,” there’d have been no controversy at all.
This was the day Romney was retooling his campaign, remember? After the appearance of a Politico piece Monday morning that was just terrible for the Romney campaign—people working on or closely with a campaign never give background quotes like some of those given for this story until they’re pretty sure they’re going to lose—the campaign sent out word that it was reset time. The team would now focus tightly on a new strategy, to make the campaign a referendum on “status quo versus change.” Contempt for half the electorate certainly qualifies as change.
That’s how it’s gone with this campaign, and that’s how it will likely continue to go. Starting from the top down, they just aren’t good enough at this. Watching this campaign, I now have the feeling I get watching a football game when the home team, the better team, is leading by about four points with 6:00 to go. It’s close. The visitors could certainly win. But somehow you just feel they don’t have it in them. They make too many mistakes, and the home team makes far fewer.
It’s hard to judge the impact of this comment just yet. That will depend on how hard the Democrats run with it. They sure ought to have fun with it. I would expect we’ll see “Obama voter—and I’m not a victim” and “I pay a higher tax rate than you, Governor!” signs at rallies by tomorrow. Indeed, the average person pays more in mere payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare (15.3 percent) than Romney paid in total taxes for the year he released his returns (13.9 percent).
I suspect an impact that’s fairly big. People on the right will blame the media. But the real culprit is the words themselves. They slander millions of hard-working Americans. And the final point: In a way, it’s not even mostly Romney’s fault. It’s the fault of the party and movement that introduced and spread this toxic propaganda in the first place. When Romney is licking his wounds on Nov. 7, that party and movement will fire all its arrows at him. He’ll deserve a lot of them. But they will have buried him with the ignorance and rage they demanded he adopt. His chief crime will have been his weakness in failing to confront them.