With each passing day, news seems to break of another Republican grown-up, pinning the party’s presidential election loss on Mitt Romney’s comments about the “47 per cent”.Today came word of a bruising analysis from Mitch Daniels, the outgoing governor of Indiana.
For Mr Daniels, the Wall Street Journal reports, it was a “self-inflicted fatal blow” when Mr Romney told donors at a private dinner that the roughly 47 per cent of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes are dependent on the government and therefore would never vote for him, comments which leaked in September, causing a flurry of negative headlines.
Worse, said Mr Daniels, Mr Romney had doubled down on this dismissive analysis in a post-mortem with donors after the election, when he said that too many voters had allowed their votes to be bought with “gifts” and promises of other people’s money.
For the Indiana governor, this was a disastrous moment that offended countless millions of Americans who receive some sort of government transfer, but “reject or even despise the idea that they are permanent parasites for doing so”.
He cited those on Social Security after a lifetime of “honest toil”, men thrown out of work and desperate to find new jobs while on unemployment insurance, and young families on low incomes receiving food stamps while “working hard”. He concluded with a swipe at the broader party, the WSJ reports, saying that the Republicans suffer from the “chronic disease” of speaking in abstractions, and failing to argue that the “principles of liberty are far better for people at the bottom than the statist alternatives.
He scolded them for using language that entirely overlooks and omits the most powerful appeal available: “We believe in you, and your ability to decide for yourself, and they don’t”.”
A few days earlier, it was the turn of a rising star of the Hispanic right, Senator-elect Ted Cruz of Texas. Mr Cruz told a conservative gathering that Republican immigration policies had been “far” less important to Hispanic voters than Mr Romney’s 47 per cent comments. “Republicans nationally, the story we conveyed is that the 47 per cent are stuck in a static world. We don’t have to worry about them,” Mr Cruz said, in comments picked up by the Huffington Post.
Now, I admit that a part of me would love to believe this analysis. The 47 per cent comments were crass and unfair to many millions of hard-working low-income Americans, who may not pay federal income taxes but still pay hefty payroll taxes on their earnings as they commute long distances to one, two or more jobs.
The comments were all the more dismaying because Mr Romney’s record as a governor of Massachusetts, not to mention as a Mormon bishop, shows a much more nuanced and sympathetic understanding of the working poor, and their struggles to climb the ladder of social mobility.
So I would love to nod along and say that the leaking of the 47 per cent comments, as filmed by a hidden camera and then publicised online, was a “fatal blow”. It would be reassuring to believe that at that moment large numbers of wavering or independent voters made up their minds to reject Mr Romney. But the record is a lot messier.
This has not been a great election for many pollsters, with some big names left to explain how their predictions were wrong. But it is striking how the best of the bunch, when looking back at the race, have all made a similar point about how stable the contest actually was, contrary to breathless press talk about a volatile electorate.
The 47 per cent moment earned an explicit mention in a post-election analysis by President Barack Obama’s in-house polling chief, David Simas. Talking to the Huffington Post, he did not describe a “fatal moment” for the opposition, but a two to three point bump for Mr Obama that then faded after his listless showing in the first presidential debate, taking the race back to where stayed for almost the entire period between April and November, with Mr Obama three to four points up on his rival in the 11 battleground states.
Pollsters who asked voters specific questions about the 47 per cent comments at the time received rather ambiguous answers, too. The Pew Research Centre polled voters about Mr Romney’s gaffe and found them divided roughly along party lines, with Republicans mostly saying his comments were right, Democrats expressing overwhelming opposition and independents who knew Mr Romney had made the remarks disapproving by a chunky margin. But a plurality of voters who knew about the comments also told Pew that the media was overdoing coverage of the row.
Mr Daniels is not even being fair when he grumbles that his party failed to make the case explicitly for individual liberty as a driver for social mobility. In months of attending Romney/Ryan rallies, I heard that very point made so often that I could probably have recited the main talking points while asleep. Here, for instance, is Paul Ryan, Mr Romney’s running mate, at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, giving the liberty-or-slavery schtick his all:
None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers – a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.
Listen to the way we’re spoken to already, as if everyone is stuck in some class or station in life, victims of circumstances beyond our control, with government there to help us cope with our fate.
It’s the exact opposite of everything I learned growing up in Wisconsin, or at college in Ohio. When I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happiness for myself. That’s what we do in this country. That’s the American Dream. That’s freedom, and I’ll take it any day over the supervision and sanctimony of the central planners.
So what, then, drives men such as Mr Daniels and Mr Cruz to single out the 47 per cent comments as the moment that the Republicans lost the election, when the leaked comments probably had a much narrower impact, by reinforcing the damaging perception among many voters that Mr Romney lacked empathy for ordinary folk?
Well, to hazard a theory, I think that conservatives launching backward-facing attacks on Mr Romney are actually waging a different fight, about the future internal power dynamics of their party.
Thoughtful Republicans know that their party base is crammed full of people, some of them out-and-out tea party types, some not, for whom the 47 per cent comments were catnip. Lots of the activists or partisans who turned up to Republican campaign events were very angry indeed about redistribution and welfare, and convinced that America had been rotted from within by a vast expansion of welfare, paid for by ever-rising taxes (and never mind that the overall tax burden is broadly lower now than a generation ago).
Interviewing voters at campaign events, the same arguments came up again and again: the country was divided between makers and takers, between taxpayers and scroungers, and Mr Obama was planning to steal re-election by purchasing the votes of the feckless with still more daring raids on the savings and income of the hard-working.
There is a case to be made that the 2012 election was lost by Republicans during the presidential primaries, precisely because candidates had to push the buttons of those sorts of activists. Locked into angry, sour rhetoric about a country being wrecked by the feckless, the Republicans ended up looking like angry men who more or less resented the extension of the franchise beyond white male property-owners.
Just consider the recent, jaw-dropping op-ed by Stuart Stevens, Mr Romney’s chief campaign strategist, in which he argued that his candidate should not be judged too harshly because he won a majority of Americans on more than the median income (ie, proper voters who support themselves, we were presumably supposed to conclude). In his words:
On Nov. 6, Romney carried the majority of every economic group except those with less than $50,000 a year in household income. That means he carried the majority of middle-class voters… There was a time not so long ago when the problems of the Democratic Party revolved around being too liberal and too dependent on minorities.
Obama turned those problems into advantages and rode that strategy to victory. But he was a charismatic African American president with a billion dollars, no primary and media that often felt morally conflicted about being critical. How easy is that to replicate? Yes, the Republican Party has problems, but as we go forward, let’s remember that any party that captures the majority of the middle class must be doing something right.
As the party looks ahead to future elections, I have a hunch that men such as Mitch Daniels, and even Mr Cruz (at once a tea party favourite but also a man who knows that Hispanics will have to be won over if his party is to prosper), know how damaging it would be for the next wave of candidates to remain in the same, inward-looking mindset, in which their opponents’ voters can be dismissed as somehow illegitimate.
Mr Romney’s 47 per cent comments were clunking and awful. It is depressing that Mr Romney felt he needed to make them to please his core supporters, and dismaying that a majority of Republicans agreed with them. But they matter now, a month after election day, not because they were the moment that Mr Romney lost the election. They matter because of what they say about the Republican Party, now and in the future.
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