April 5, 2013

Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks didn’t cost him the presidency, but they reinforced the image of him and the GOP as cold, heartless, and only concerned with the interests of the rich. After the election, Republican leaders tried to repair the damage of this by distancing themselves from the former GOP nominee and trying to emphasize the elements of their agenda that may appeal working and middle-class voters.

The problem is that the GOP remains wedded to the ideas underlying the 47 percent remarks, if not their tone.

Indeed, some conservatives are unconvinced the party needs reform. Former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, who now heads the conservative Heritage Foundation, claimed late last year: “I think the problem is that as conservatives we have not taken enough control of our message and our ideas and communicated them directly to the American people.” And yesterday, he emphasized that point with a letter that borrowed liberally from Romney’s 47 percent comments, taking control of the conservative message with a broad attack on “dependency”:

“Today, more people than ever before – 69.5 million Americans, from college students to retirees to welfare beneficiaries – depend on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid, or other assistance once considered to be the responsibility of individuals, families, neighborhoods, churches, and other civil society institutions,” DeMint wrote.

“The United States must reverse the direction of these trends or face economic and social collapse.”

Like Romney, DeMint expands the idea of dependent people beyond “welfare” — the usual target of conservatives — to include many other Americans who benefit from federal programs. Tellingly, this doesn’t include homeowners, small business owners, or corporate executives, who receive huge benefits from the federal government in the form of tax breaks, subsidies, and tax preferences. It’s only dependency, it seems, when your income is less than six-figures.

Despite all the talk of a rift between DeMint and the GOP leadership, DeMint’s views are representative of those held by many in the Republican Party and party leaders. Paul Ryan, for example, continues to push a budget plan that would gut spending for the poor — thus ending dependency — and funnel it to tax cuts for the rich, while new senators like Ted Cruz of Texas support massive cuts to the social safety net.

In other words, there’s little daylight between DeMint and actual Republican policy. The only difference is that DeMint is willing to be blunt about his views and priorities. DeMint and the GOP both want deep cuts to the welfare state, in order to return to an idealized past where civil society took “responsibility,” and the desperately poor — apparently — didn’t exist.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.