Michael Tomasky on How the GOP Invented Mitt Romney’s “Moochers”

Republicans once cared about the poor and middle class. But no longer. What’s a fair-minded Democrat to do?

Tom Uhlman / AP Photo

One of the things that really gets me is hearing people say things like, “I voted for Obama because I hoped he’d be able to unite the country, and he hasn’t, and I’m very disappointed by that.” Well, look. People have other things to do in their lives besides think about politics all day, I understand that. But really—this is like blaming Sharon Tate for failing to make peace with Charles Manson. The Republicans operate from a mindset of wanting to crush and destroy the Democrats, and I bring this up today because the debate over the “freeloading” 47 percent is as good an exhibit as exists with which to make the case.

Democrats and Republicans have, of course, always had different views about poverty and the circumstances of the working poor. Democrats led the fight to help them, but back when there were moderate Republicans, they participated in the fight. The War on Poverty was, certainly by today’s standards, impressively bipartisan (10 of 32 Republicans in the Senate voted for the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the bill that created Head Start and so many other programs). Republicans and some conservative Democrats quickly began to question the act, but for most legislators, the goal of doing something existed.

Richard Nixon, as we know, tried to pass a guaranteed minimum income for poor families. And in 1975, the year after Nixon resigned, Democrats and Republicans worked together to pass the first Earned Income Tax Credit. It’s the EITC, as you may have read over the last couple of days, that’s more responsible than anything else for taking so many working poor off the income tax rolls. Republicans liked it—it was designed to keep people off welfare, and it did (and does). Ronald Reagan, expanding it in 1986, bragged that millions of families would be removed from the tax rolls altogether. Bill Clinton expanded it again, as part of the big budget bill of 1993, for which he received zero Republican votes.

Now the clouds begin to gather. You still had Jack Kemp and a few of his sort kicking around, but by the 1990s, the Republicans start to see poverty more and more as a “moral” issue. And more to the point, they start to see Democrats and liberals not as the opposition party that should be defeated, but some kind of disease-carrying vermin that has to be eradicated. George W. Bush cut taxes for everyone, more for those at the high end of course, but for everyone, removing a few more people from the tax rolls. Some on the right started looking askance at this. The Wall Street Journal editorial page was the first to articulate the position, inveighing against the “lucky duckies” who paid no income tax—the editorial caught Tim Noah’s attention back in 2003.

What a handy development! For years, when Democrats argued for retaining the progressivity of the tax code—rich people should pay more because they have more—Republicans didn’t have much to say in response. But now they could return serve with the factoid that a hefty percentage of Americans don’t pay taxes at all!

It’s a lie, of course—they pay payroll taxes, which are hefty, especially if you make $18,000 a year. And more than that, it marked a huge shift in Republican thinking. For decades, the Republican habit had been to go along with helping poor people, however modestly, as long as the means were nongovernmental. But with the Journal editorials and some further spadework done in their wake, the right began openly to advocate laying more of the burden on poor people, taking more of it off the rich (whose taxes they were cutting dramatically anyway), and calling it “fairness.”

And somehow, after Obama took office, that was when the argument really caught fire. (Hmm, I wonder what it was about Obama that inflamed passions so.) The nerve center here was the American Enterprise Institute, which, as Mark Schmitt put it in a fantastic essay earlier this week, shed “the traditional business-minded conservatism of, say, the first President Bush, for hard conservatism in which everything is a grand showdown of incompatible worldviews.”

That is as right as rain, and it says it all. The parties have long had different views about these matters, and they’ve often disagreed. But it’s only in recent history that the right has elevated this into a kind of Wagnerian Gotterdammerung in which the moochers and their defenders must be utterly vanquished.

And so it’s only natural that now, we have most conservatives, certainly most rank-and-file ones, defending Mitt Romney’s remarks and actually believing that half the country takes no responsibility for their lives. And their agents inside the Beltway, Republican senators and members of Congress, either believe it right along with them, or exist in a state of such tremulous fear of this rank-and-file’s wrath that they act—and vote—as if they believe it.

They can’t be reasoned with. They won’t negotiate. They have, as Schmitt suggested, raised every disagreement, on issue after issue, to the level of clashing worldviews. And it’s Obama’s fault that the tone in Washington hasn’t changed? It may have been idealistic and naive of him to promise it, but at least he tried, and I’ll take idealistic and naive over dishonest and cynical. It’s a sad thing to say, but the country will be united only when the liars and cynics see that their tactics no longer work.