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Makers, takers, and Mitt Romney's 47 percent comment

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 3:40 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to the American Legion National Convention on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012 in Indianapolis. When Romney commented at a fundraiser that 47 percent of voters were locked into Obama because they pay no income taxes, some commentators dug into the numbers and debated the merits of his claim. (Evan Vucci, Associated Press) Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to the American Legion National Convention on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012 in Indianapolis. When Romney commented at a fundraiser that 47 percent of voters were locked into Obama because they pay no income taxes, some commentators dug into the numbers and debated the merits of his claim. (Evan Vucci, Associated Press)

When Romney suggested at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the voters pay no income tax and thus, with no skin in the game, are not open to persuasion on government spending or lower taxes, the firestorm that followed was to be expected.

The 47 percent, Romney had said, are those who “are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

"Here is the sneering plutocrat," wrote Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine, "fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party. He believes that market incomes in the United States are a perfect reflection of merit."

"Thurston Howell Romney" headlined David Brooks at the New York Times, adding that "as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney."

These are, of course, only a small sample of the multitude of expected responses from the expected directions.

Republicans, meanwhile, were divided. Bill Kristol at the Weekly Standard called the comments "arrogant and stupid." He also noted the obvious parallel to Barack Obama's famous "bitter clinger" comment in 2008, also at an "off-the-record" fundraiser.

"You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest," Obama had said of people in failing communities and long-term unemployment, "And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Kristol questioned the merits of Romney's claim, noting that many who don't pay income taxes still support Romney. These include, Kristol argued, "seniors (who might well) believe they are entitled to heath care," a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they're not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan."

The Wall Street Journal, as one might expect, broke out the numbers, relying on a study by the Tax Policy Center.

Yes, 49 percent of Americans now receive some kind of government entitlement, WSJ concluded, but this includes 16 percent on Social Security and 15 percent on Medicare, both earned benefits deducted from paychecks before retirement.

At Bloomberg, conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuro, like Kristol, disputed the underlying premise in a column written before the story broke, but addressing a developing conservative meme.

"It’s true that Americans with low incomes — more and more of whom now receive food stamps and federally subsidized health insurance — have generally voted for Democrats over Republicans. But in 2010, these voters shifted toward Republicans even as food stamps,unemployment benefits and the like continued to increase," Ponnuro wrote.

The overarching inaccuracy of Romney's comment is perhaps best captured in the AP poll released on Wednesday, which shows Romney leading by 30 points among white voters without college degrees, many of whom by definition will be in the 47 percent who pay no income taxes, if only through a combination of child deductions and low income levels.

"White voters without college degrees favor Romney by more than 30 points over Obama (63 percent back Romney compared with 30 percent behind Obama), a steeper split than the 18-point margin John McCain held over Obama among the group in 2008. White voters with college degrees are about evenly split (50 percent Obama to 48 percent Romney), about on par with 2008.

Paradoxically, these low-income voters are also the "bitter clingers" disparaged by Obama in his 2008 fund raiser flap.

Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at eschulzke@desnews.com.

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