Romney’s “Victims” vs. Obama’s “Cash Cows”

Romney’s “Victims” vs. Obama’s “Cash Cows”

Benjamin Graves/Wikimedia/iStockphoto/Reuters/The Fiscal Times

With the conventions wrapped, and the presidential race in full swing, voters now have a much clearer idea of how each candidate will run the country -- thanks to two previously unheard pieces of audio. Romney wants more people to make more money by lowering the deficit and reducing government spending; Obama wants to play Robin Hood—taking from the haves and giving to the have-nots, thus bloating government and stalling private enterprise growth.  Both campaigns have quotes to explain – or perhaps even to press as advantages.

Of course, to listen to the media, Mitt Romney just lost the election for the second week in a row with the release of secretly-taped remarks from a private May fundraiser in Florida.  Last week, the media wrote off the Republican nominee for criticizing a statement from the Cairo embassy that Romney claimed “sympathized” with rioters over an offensive YouTube video, rather than standing up for free speech. 

Polls showed that voters didn’t share the media’s sense that Romney’s remarks represented the big story as American embassies in the Arab world went up in flames and assassins killed a US ambassador for the first time in 33 years.  NBC and the Wall Street Journal found that it was Barack Obama who lost ground on foreign policy in a poll taken a week later, not Mitt Romney, dropping five points overall from the previous month and 12 points among independent voters.

This week, Mother Jones published an edited clip from a Romney fundraising four months earlier, in which Romney discusses the difficulties in beating Obama in November.  Romney asserts that 47 percent of the electorate will be a solid lock for Obama, as they have a significant self-interest in perpetuating an entitlement regime – and their own tax status. 

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Romney tells his donors. “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 they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it….These are people who pay no income tax, 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect.” 

Instead of worrying about those voters, Romney tells them he will aim for “the five to ten percent in the center,” because “I’ll never convince them [the 47 percent] that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Those were tough words, and Romney didn’t just take flak from the Left after they were leaked to the media by the grandson of Jimmy Carter. Conservative commentators criticized Romney for assuming that all of the 47 percent are lost to the GOP, and for conflating those who pay no federal income tax and those explicitly on entitlement programs.

Those critics had a point: a Gallup poll released the next day showed that while Romney trailed among low-income voters, he still commands a significant share of the vote among those who pay no federal income tax.  He gets 34 percent of the vote from those earning under $24,000, 41 percent of those earning between $24,000 and $36,000.  Not all of these people think of themselves as victims, and even Romney responded later by admitting that he’d made the argument “inelegantly.”

That doesn’t mean Romney didn’t intend to make this argument in the general election.  On Wednesday, Romney wrote an essay for USA Today presenting his approach on economic growth in a more elegant form.  “My course for the American economy will encourage private investment and personal freedom,” Romney pledged. “Instead of creating a web of dependency, I will pursue policies that grow our economy and lift Americans out of poverty.”  He acknowledged that government had a role to play in the crisis, but that Obama’s policies had produced “a stagnant economy that fosters government dependency. … Unemployment has been above 8 percent for 43 straight months; 47 million Americans are on food stamps. Nearly one in six Americans now live in poverty.”

Romney seems intent on clarifying the economic argument on a broad and philosophical basis, rather than stay content to argue over details.  Obama now has the same opportunity. The day after the release of the Romney tape, audio from a 1998 appearance by Obama at Loyola University surfaced in which Obama discussed his support for government redistribution. "I think the trick is how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution,” Obama said, “because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody's got a shot.”

Rather than embrace this statement, as Romney did his, the Obama campaign sought to distance themselves from it, insisting that it just referred to city government – even though Obama was at the time a state Senator.  Compare this to Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic national convention, though, which promoted his policy that “asks the wealthiest households to pay higher taxes on incomes,” in order to restore an America where “everyone gets a fair shot and everyone does their fair share.”  That sounds a lot like the redistribution Obama supported in 1998, right down to the same applause lines.

Why doesn’t the President want to join Romney in a broad, philosophical discussion about economic policy and outcomes?  Perhaps it’s the latter that scares Obama most.  The stimulus bill spent $800 billion in borrowed money, which arguably has been redistributed from future generations that have to repay that debt, as the Obama administration and a Democratic Congress added mountains of new regulation aimed specifically at businesses and investors to achieve “fairness” in health care and credit distribution. 

Instead of touching off a boom in economic growth and job creation, we have seen the civilian labor participation rate hit its worst level since 1981 as workers fall out of the workforce.  Both the median household income and hourly earnings have dropped faster during the Obama recovery than it did during the recession that preceded it. 

Census Bureau data shows that start-up jobs per 1,000 Americans during the Obama administration have fallen far below the level seen in the last 25 years, a sign of deep trouble in the engine of the US economy.  In almost every measure, we’re not just treading water in a stagnant redistributionist economy – we are actively falling behind.

Mitt Romney may not have made an elegant argument back in May about the differences between redistributionary economic and regulatory policies and free-market approaches, and the willingness of the electorate to hear it.  However, his effort to keep pressing that debate while his opponent tries to evade it shows that Romney has the better argument – and elegant or not, the outcomes make this debate absolutely critical to our nation’s future.