Mitt Romney’s remarks that split the American electorate into makers and takers turn on their head Republican arguments that President Barack Obama is dividing the country through “class warfare.”
That charge against Obama has been a fixture of the Republican’s campaign. In a Sept. 7 speech in Orange City, Iowa, Romney decried Obama’s “divisive and dismissive approach” in “a campaign pitting one American against another.”
During the primaries, the former private-equity executive was more pointed. At a Jan 4. town-hall meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire, he said Obama sought “to promote envy as opposed to ambition and to poison the American spirit with class warfare.”
Democrats yesterday seized on a leaked video of Romney at a May fundraiser, during which he said 47 percent of Americans were “victims,” dependent on government. “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he said.
“This man apparently feels if you’re not part of his social class or his economic -- you don’t have his economic status, that somehow you’re a parasite,” former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat, said on CNN.
Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who worked on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid, said disclosure of the video, first published on the website of the magazine Mother Jones, “is a really big blow” to Romney. “He’s essentially told half the nation he won’t be their president,” Devine added.
Obama used an appearance of CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman” to show a contrast with Romney’s sentiment. “When I won in 2008, 47 percent of the American people voted for John McCain,” he said. “And what I said on election night was, ‘Even though you didn’t vote for me, I hear your voices, and I’m going to work as hard as I can to be your president.’” As president, he added, “you represent the entire country.”
Romney defended his comments in an interview yesterday on Fox News. He said he didn’t mean to write off any group of voters, and sought to place his statement in the broader context of his campaign message.
“We believe in free people and free enterprise; not redistribution,” Romney said.
Echoes of Rand
The basis of Romney’s division of the nation, with those who pay federal income tax in one category and those who receive federal benefits in the other, follows a view of “makers” in tension with “takers” championed by philosopher Ayn Rand, author of books such as “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.”
Vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who has cited Rand as an influence, regularly employed that terminology until he was chosen for the Republican ticket, including in a January 2011 speech to the National Press Club previewing the incoming Republican Congress’s agenda.
“We’re getting more and more takers than makers in America,” Ryan said. “And we need to have more makers and less takers in America because if we have more takers, then we’re denying people their ability to make the most of their lives.”
Republican leaders have used “class warfare” as a response to Obama’s theme of “fairness” for the middle class. It was featured in rebuttals to the president’s call for what he termed the “Buffett rule,” inspired by billionaire investor Warren Buffett, which would require that wealthy investors pay at least as high an effective income-tax rate as middle-income families.
Republicans have charged that class envy also is behind Obama campaign ads showing layoffs of workers at companies bought by Romney’s former private equity company, Bain Capital, and the attention Democrats have given to his refusal to release more than two years of federal income-tax returns. Romney’s 2010 tax return showed he paid an effective rate of 13.9 percent, lower than many middle- and upper-middle-income households.
Ryan has continued to invoke the charge of class warfare against Obama. In a speech at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit in Washington on Sept. 14, Ryan said Obama has spent four years “dividing people up with the bogus rhetoric of class warfare.”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told Fox News on Aug. 13 that Obama has “turned to the politics of envy and division, trying to divide Americans.”
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky dismissed Obama’s plan to eliminate the George W. Bush administration’s tax cuts for the wealthy as “all about class warfare” in a July 16 Fox News interview.
Still, even some Republicans criticized Romney’s comments.
Linda McMahon, a Senate candidate in Connecticut, distanced herself from them.
“I disagree with Governor Romney’s insinuation that 47 percent of Americans believe they are victims who must depend on the government for their care,” McMahon said in a statement yesterday. “I know that the vast majority of those who rely on government are not in that situation because they want to be.”
Senator Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican running for re-election, said Romney’s comments didn’t reflect his own view of the world.
“As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in,” Brown said in a statement.
‘Stupid and Arrogant’
The division of the population that Romney invoked in his videotaped remarks unfavorably depicts many voters who would ordinarily consider voting Republican, said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a former chief of staff to Republican Vice President Dan Quayle.
Kristol called Romney’s remarks “stupid and arrogant” in a blog posting.
“It’s worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don’t pay income taxes are Romney supporters -- especially, of course, seniors” as well as “many lower-income Americans” and members of the armed forces, Kristol wrote. “So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.”
The bulk of households that pay no federal income tax are either elderly Social Security recipients or working families with low or modest incomes, according to the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan Washington research group.
Social Security payments are partially excluded from taxation, putting many of the elderly below the threshold income to pay federal income tax. Working families benefit from a child tax credit, the earned income tax credit, a standard deduction and personal exemptions.
In 2011, a married couple with two children whose income came from wages only and had no child-care expenses could make as much as $37,887 without paying any federal income taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center. Those with child-care expenses, alimony or student loan interest could earn more without paying federal income taxes.
In most cases, they would still pay Social Security taxes and state and local taxes.
“The overlap between this group and the demographics that are absolutely critical to him in the election is amazing,” said Ruy Teixeira, a political demographer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
If Obama is able to maintain his 2008 levels of support among minority voters and college-educated whites, Romney will have to prevail among non-college-educated whites with a 36-percentage-point victory margin to win the election, Teixeira said.
McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate, won the non-college-educated white vote by an 18-point margin, exit polls showed. McCain won 46 percent of the overall vote.