Friday, September 28, 2012

Mitt Romney and the 47% Comments

I got a few hundred words written about the two Presidential candidates’ responses to the situation at the American Consulate in Benghazi earlier this month (well, that incident in particular among several). On the one hand, we had the Obama administration’s absurd claim that the crisis was created, or at least catalyzed, by a hack movie-maker whose amateurish effort had been on-line for months. On the other hand was the incompetent and narcissistic posturing of Candidate Romney, whose allegations, even had they been true (which, of course, they weren’t: this is Mitt Romney we’re talking about, after all) would have been ill-timed, ill-considered, un-presidential, and dangerous.

Before I had a chance to finish, however, came The Leak. You know the one: about how Romney can’t win the support of 47% of the population because they don’t pay taxes. A friend posted a status on his Facebook page: “So...after Mitt's Libya debacle last week, and the now-famous ‘secret tape’ release on anybody else wondering what David Axelrod's gonna do with his third wish?” Yeah, pretty much. The scary thing is that this revelation had virtually no effect on Romney’s prospects: the bottom line is that independent voters (by which I include myself, along with other members of either party who are honestly willing to consider a candidate from across the aisle) 1). have largely already made up their minds, and 2). are voting for either Not Obama or Not Romney.

Stated otherwise, the fact that Nate Silver still gives Governor Romney a reasonable chance of winning in November (albeit that chance dropped from better than 1 in 5 to less than 1 in 6 in the couple of days it took me to write this piece) is attributable almost in its entirety to President Obama rather than to the GOP nominee himself. Obama’s positive/negative ratings throughout the campaign season—dating back to last November—have been largely even or negative… until recently, when those of us with cynical dispositions might be thinking not so much about his performance per se as how he compares to the other guy who wants the job.

Somewhat predictably, the President’s lowest ratings (42/50) occurred in December, when the posse of Republican candidates were all making headlines with their own spin on why the country was circling the bowl. The bad news for the Romney campaign—other than the fact that their candidate is Mitt Romney—is that Obama now has not merely an overall positive rating (50/44), but that for two consecutive weeks he’s hit the 50% plateau, where he hadn’t been for a very long time. Yes, the timing corresponds to that of the Democratic convention, so there’s probably a bump from that: his favorables went up 6 and his unfavorables down 3 during convention week. By contrast, Obama took a two-point favorability dip during the GOP convention—but there was no increase in his unfavorability rating, and Romney gained virtually no ground as a result.

What all this means is that Romney’s only hope is to keep the attention on Obama. I’m not sure I agree with Peggy Noonan that this is a year in which “Republicans couldn’t lose” (but are losing), but I think there’s no question that there is (or at least was) a greater opening for a GOP challenger now than there was 12 years ago, when George W. Bush was nonetheless elected. (And to my friends on the left who think Bush and his minions “stole” that election: it shouldn’t have been close enough to steal. Shut up and move on.)

Obama has had some successes that we can all agree on: the fact that Osama bin Laden and Muammar Qaddafi aren’t around anymore is a good thing. We can argue about how much credit should go to Obama, and about the downsides of those successes (further strained relationships with Pakistan, for example) but those are certainly victories that happened on his watch. The American automobile industry is in better shape now than in many years. Still, whereas many of us are glad DADT is a thing of the past, Obama’s leadership on the issue made him as many enemies as friends. Same for the Affordable Care Act, and for, in fact, the majority of what I and others might think of as accomplishments.

Moreover, the left is unsatisfied. I’m no Socialist (although I confess that I am somewhat disappointed that I have yet to be called one by an idiot right-winger), but the fact that a single-payer health system was never on the table even as a bargaining chip boggles my mind. Guantánamo is still open; DOMA is still the law of the land; Obama’s Iraq and Afghanistan policies are virtually indistinguishable from Bush’s.

More fundamentally, whereas Romney is surely disingenuous in many of his attacks on Obama’s policies—he’s hardly the first candidate to run against an incumbent with that strategy—there are some things that aren’t so good right now, and about which we can all agree. The unemployment rate, especially for minorities, and the deficit are unacceptably high. Yeah, yeah, I know: the GOP-led House won’t pass any jobs bills, and they are petulantly refusing to do what any rational person would do and raise taxes. They claim their Infallible Leader is Ronald Reagan, but it’s really Grover Norquist. I get all that, and I agree with the overwhelming majority of it. But the sign on Truman’s desk didn’t read “The buck stops with the Speaker of the House.”

Luckily for the Obama campaign, Romney is nothing if not hubristic. All he had to do following the events in Benghazi, for example, was to do precisely what he did after the shootings in Aurora: express condolences and look serious. “Much as I disagree with President Obama on many issues, I trust that all Americans blahdeblahblahblah…” Then, wait a few hours and do an interview where you’ll surely be asked about the situation. Respond by starting with sympathy and then allow as how the situation might possibly be avoided, and that you hope the rumors you’re hearing turn out to be false. Nope. He had to get out there with a statement that was rightfully interpreted as an attempt to score political points off a tragedy. Way too soon, and way too inaccurate. By the way, is anyone else a little bemused by those who grudgingly admit the “apology” was issued well before the attack, but whine that it was not taken down soon enough afterwards… after all, it’s not like those folks had anything else on their minds but updating their fucking website, right?

But, revenons à nos moutons. The Leak. Let’s stipulate two things: 1). the tape was attained through inappropriate means, and 2). what candidates—all candidates—say to supporters would probably shock and appall most of us. But this isn’t a law court. There is no evidence that the tape was edited, nor have I seen any claims from the Romney camp that it was. In other words, whereas making and distributing the tape was unethical by those who did so, using it as a means of learning more about candidate Romney by the rest of us is thoroughly reasonable.

So here’s the transcript of that now-(in)famous section:
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. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that's what they sell every four years. And so 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.
Sigh. I mean, really, where to begin?
With the fact that people who pay no federal income tax still pay taxes: state and local taxes, including the notoriously regressive sales tax, property taxes (directly or indirectly: if you don’t own your home, your rent pays for the landlord’s taxes); the also regressive payroll tax (I’d say “don’t get me started on this one,” but it’s too late); various excise taxes; etc.?

With the recognition that the 47% in question is comprised substantially of active duty service personnel, students working to pay their way through school, the elderly? With the intriguing statistic that 96% of Americans (including, say, Paul Ryan) have received direct government assistance? (That’s not counting things like roads and schools and police: things from which all of us benefit.)

With the fact that the states with the highest percentage of folks not paying federal income tax are overwhelmingly red? Of the 14 states with the highest rates of non-payers, Romney will win 11, including the top 3, even in the event of an Obama blowout.

With the blithe and condescending portrayal of half the population as self-described victims unwilling or unable to take responsibility for their lives?

Or is it with the face-melting chutzpah that suggests that Romney will somehow win over 94% of the remaining 53% in order to win? Those are Josef Stalin numbers.
The claims in Romney’s speech are, in short, substantively preposterous and politically inept: not merely because, as Meghan McCain (among others) points out, you’ve got to assume that there’s a camera-toting mole somewhere in your operation, but more importantly because you’re begging for money to help you win and essentially conceding defeat at the same time. It almost makes it worse that there’s a legitimate observation under all the camel dung of Romney’s rhetoric: too many people don’t pay federal income tax, because our wealth is so unevenly distributed that nearly half the population doesn’t make enough money to have to do so.

The fact that Romney is making political arguments I disagree with will shock you, Gentle Reader, precisely as much as my suggestion that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. But that he would be this utterly incompetent as a candidate is really mind-boggling. Because here’s the deal: either Romney actually believes the drivel he’s spewing (possible, but unlikely), or he thinks his audience doesn’t know any better (really insulting to a carefully selected hoity-toity crowd), or there’s a nudge-nudge-wink-wink schtik happening here, with the candidate and his (imminent) donors engaging in a rather disturbing coded intercourse (a term I choose quite consciously) replete with disingenuous claims which are actively twisted into a particularly nasty truthiness. I’m not sure which of these scenaria is the most disturbing.

Mitt Romney is an arrogant buffoon, a self-entitled jerk, and a pathological liar. And even after all that has become obvious to anyone paying even a modicum of attention, he’s still got about a 1 in 6 chance of becoming the leader of the free world. Not the biggest endorsement of Mr. Obama, is it?

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