Just days after the release of a four-month-old recording in which Republican presidential candidate Romney told donors that the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income taxes are not likely to vote for him because they “believe they are victims” entitled to government benefits, a recording of Obama’s comments to a 1998 community organizing conference was conveniently released that supported many – but not all – of the remarks even Romney himself has called inelegant.
Romney’s mistake was not his admission that voters who pay no income taxes are unlikely to support candidates who promise to cut taxes, but his failure to recognize that millions of low- and moderate-income Americans do not consider themselves victims at all and simply want the opportunity to earn the kind of life I saw vilified in Obama ads on Florida TV last week.
Instead of appearing to write such people off, Romney should have appealed to their upwardly mobile aspirations, as Republicans traditionally have done. His failure to do so not only reinforced efforts to portray him as an out-of-touch elitist but represented a lost opportunity to illustrate the profound differences between the two candidates’ economic and governmental philosophies.
Contrast Romney’s message of free markets, low taxes and economic growth with Obama’s 1998’s unapologetic support of wealth redistribution and strategy to create a “majority coalition” of welfare recipients and working poor. Just as people who don’t pay taxes aren’t directly affected by lower rates, people who perceive themselves to be dependent on government checks have a vested interest in rewarding politicians who promise to keep those checks coming in ever-growing amounts – even if it isn’t in their own, or the country’s, best long-term interest.
Is the exponential growth of food stamps, disability payments and other forms of “entitlements” during the Obama presidency simply a legitimate response to hard economic times?
Or does it, in fact, represent a calculated attempt to create a voting bloc comprising people who may not consider themselves victims but are content to remain dependent?
For all the media bluster of the past week, Romney is hardly the first to suggest such a possibility. After visiting the then-young United States in the 1830s, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “The American republic will endure until the day Congress discovers it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”
With a debt of more than $16 trillion, that day is obviously here. The question this election must answer is this: What – if anything – are we willing to do about it?
Obama’s invitation to begrudge others their honestly earned success is ostensibly about “fairness,” but de Tocqueville had something to say about that, too: “Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: While democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.”
If the polls are right, Americans are evenly split between Romney and Obama, with the president holding an edge in all-important “swing” states such as Florida. That is either a testament to Romney’s failure to inspire others and to confront and expose a deeply flawed administration, or a tribute to the president’s personal popularity and ability to make an all-powerful state sound benign.
Do Americans still value the freedom to succeed – or fail – more than they value the kind of government generosity that sustains life but cannot elevate it? With little more than a month to go before Election Day, the answer hangs in the balance.
Both candidates made their positions clear on recordings made without their knowledge, but only Romney has stood by them publicly.
That should tell you something.