A few random thoughts (and some reporting) on Mitt Romney and the video.
First, what Mitt Romney was getting at – as opposed to what he actually said – is undeniably true as a broad observation: too many Americans are dependent, or partially dependent, on an expansive government. It's morally corrosive and fiscally unsustainable. Even as Romney's campaign to date has focused almost exclusively on the short-term economy and unemployment rates, many conservatives have urged him to place this very basic truth at the center of his campaign. In that sense, it's understandable that some Romney supporters are enthusiastic about the fact that it ended up there – however unintentional and however awkwardly.
But Romney's statement is wrong in many of its particulars — the 47 percent are not all dependent on government, they don't all think of themselves as victims, and they're certainly not all Obama supporters.
What happened, it seems, is that Romney combined a political argument with a substantive one. For months, Romney has been providing donors at these fundraisers with a version of what he said on the videotape. But, according to those who have heard him in these settings, he usually keeps his comments focused on politics. Romney tells donors that Obama will get 47 percent of the vote nationally regardless of what he does – those are the president's locked-in voters. Romney's share, he explains, is somewhere slightly below that number – he often uses 45 percent – and the election is essentially a battle for the rest.
The charitable view of Romney's comments, then, is that he was simply musing aloud about his electoral prospects and got carried away.
But politicians are not judged on what they meant. It's what they say that matters. And Romney here seems to be articulating a deeply pessimistic view of America and what makes it great.
"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 the 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....These are people who pay no income tax.... [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Those last two sentences are especially troubling. Romney seems to believe that those who are sucking at the public teat are forever destined to do 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."
He is not saying that he'll never convince these people that they should vote for him. He says, without qualification, that he'll never convince them to take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
If Romney truly believes that, then he shouldn't be running for president. If he is elected, one of his most important jobs will be to convince the American public, particularly those who have become too reliant on government, that they need to take personal responsibility for their lives.
But maybe Romney really does believe that nearly half of the country is irredeemable. There are echoes in Romney's videotaped comments of Romney's statement that he's not worried about the "very poor" because they have a safety net. The very foundation of the American promise is upward mobility — the idea that anyone can succeed if he works hard enough to do so. This was, not incidentally, one of the major themes at the Republican convention in Tampa, with one speaker after another parading to the podium to share a story about his or her rise from poverty, etc. And it's one of the main reasons that many movement conservatives are movement conservatives.
What Romney says here — and earlier — suggests a view that the poor are consigned to their stations in life forever and that their only hope is the government. That sounds instead like something that President Obama might say — and indeed has come close to saying. "I'm always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart," he said in the "context" to his "you didn't build that" comment. "There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help." Both views, in their own way, minimize the importance of hard work. Romney seems to think that those dependent on government are hopeless because they'll never take personal responsibility; Obama thinks they can succeed only with government help and that no one succeeds without government help.
What are the political implications of the tape? One effect will be to amplify the Obama campaign portrayal of Romney as an uncaring rich guy. It's hard to say whether that will matter much. They've been hard at work at defining Romney that way for months and one suspects that most of those who accept that view or Romney were not likely to vote for him anyway.
Could it fire up conservatives? Perhaps. Some conservatives have already declared that they like this Mitt Romney better than the cautious, programmed one they've seen in public campaign events. They seem willing to look beyond the problems with what Romney actually said in their eagerness to embrace what they hope he meant.
The best case scenario is one in which Romney takes this gaffe, which was a rejection of the optimism that animates reform conservatism, and uses it to turn his campaign into an ideological critique of Barack Obama and an embrace of the bold solutions that give shape to reform conservatism.
Will it happen?
"Politics is like sports," Romney's chief strategist Stuart Stevens told Politico over the weekend. "A lot of people have ideas, and there's no right or wrong. You just have to chart a course, and stay on that course."
Really? If the course you're on isn't working, maybe you'd better adjust.