A year after Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party vied for America’s future, it looks like the class war is back.
“There are forty-seven percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney began, “All right, there are forty-seven 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.” Step aside 1 and 99, there’s a new percentage in town.
The above excerpt comes from a speech Romney gave at a May fundraiser, unaware his comments would be recorded and later published just when his campaign needed them least. The former Bay State governor has confirmed the speech as genuine and defended his argument, while running mate Rep. Paul Ryan claims it was “inarticulate” but honest. Unfortunately for the GOP ticket, the facts aren’t so cut-and-dry.
First, the number itself. Romney reasoned that those “dependent” 47% will stay with President Barack Obama because “these are people who pay no income tax.” It’s an accurate statistic long cited by Republican officials, though none have publicly gone so far in their commentary. The devil, as usual, is in the details. Of those expected to pay no federal income tax in 2011, more than 60% were employed and contributing payroll taxes—awkward for Romney, that still puts their effective tax rate higher than his own. An additional 20% of the group were elderly and past retirement age; no income means no income tax. Most of the remaining 20% are unemployed, exempt for the same reason.
It’s important to note that for many of those 47%, their income is simply too low to trigger the tax. Americans have a penchant for seeing past their growing income inequality, but there’s no escaping the nation’s startling 15% poverty rate. With so many facing extreme economic difficulty as a result of the financial crisis and recession, is it any surprise that nearly half of the country is exempt? More importantly for Romney, part of that exemption is due to Republicans’ fondness for tax cuts. You can’t slash federal tax rates for most Americans and then complain that so many pay fewer or no federal taxes.
Surprisingly, the numbers reveal that some 4,000 households don’t pay federal income tax because they have too much income. Numerous tax breaks, loopholes, and other tricks have allowed some wealthy Americans to skirt the IRS entirely. It’s highly unlikely those individuals fit Gov. Romney’s claims of government dependence or entitlement. If Gov. Romney seriously wants to widen the tax base, his best bet may be to let the Bush tax cuts expire and postpone any new breaks of his own. The Christian Science Monitor predicts that such measures would drop the percentage of non-payers under 40 by the end of the decade.
More difficult for Romney may be a second excerpt, where he says of the 47%, “[My] job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” The White House’s response was blunt: “When you’re President of the United States, you’re president of all the people,” said press secretary Jay Carney. “What unites us as Americans is far greater than what divides us.” The Romney campaign has long called Obama a class warrior set on exploiting socioeconomic divisions for political gain. This latest exchange hands Democrats a potent weapon to turn that charge on its head.
There’s also the uncomfortably reality that many of those “dependent” people Romney disdains are the very ones he claims to worry about most; Republicans. The ten states with the highest percentage of non-payers are solidly GOP, including Mississippi (ranked 1st), Alabama (3rd), and Texas (8th). The ten states with the lowest percentage? That group’s largely Democratic, including Massachusetts (49th), Connecticut (48th), and Washington state (43rd).
Those numbers are part of a larger trend recently lampooned by The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart—blue states pay the lion’s share of federal taxes, but it’s red states that benefit most from programs such as welfare or food stamps. Far from reliable Obama voters, it’s increasingly clear that Romney’s 47% includes a substantial number of his own political base.
Whatever the case, voters are taking notice. The latest CNN poll reveals that even in the GOP South, majorities believe Romney and his policies favor the rich. As one former Romney campaign official notes, “We [Republicans] don’t write off those who are dependent—we help them get the education and tools to succeed on their own. Writing them off,” as the GOP candidate suggests, “is an anathema to us.”
After a year of Occupiers and Tea Parties, the central debate has shifted from the 99-to-1 extremes to the middling 47%. Mitt Romney’s comments threaten to permanently derail his presidential aspirations, but they also give him a chance to reconsider. His own father once benefited from government welfare, and he overcame hardship to captain an automaker, serve as governor of Michigan, and nearly win the Oval Office. The father’s story holds an important lesson for the son; life-long dependency should certainly be discouraged, but government assistance need not define or destroy a family’s future. After all, that’s two Romneys in a row with a serious chance at the presidency. Not bad for a household that began in Mitt’s 47%.