The media consensus that Mitt Romney had fatally damaged his election prospects with his remarks, caught on video, about the 47 percent of Americans dependent on the government was a classic case of their lack of appreciation for how fluid a presidential race is and how issues can play to different groups of people.
The media decided that calling Obama’s voters, in effect, moochers doomed Romney’s candidacy. But, as maladroit as that part of his comments was, the flash-mob attention gave Romney an opportunity to talk about the problem of a growing government and his “two visions” theme. And in a rare occurrence for a campaign dinged as too slow, he seized the opportunity.
The “two visions” message, which both he and running mate Paul Ryan have pounded for some time, posits that Obama wants a bigger government with more people receiving federal benefits of one type or another, while Romney-Ryan want to foster an “opportunity society,” in which individuals help themselves. Romney is delighted to have that argument so long as he can clean up the less attractive parts of his comments to donors.
He got some help from the usual quarters. CNBC’s Rick Santelli (whose on-air rant launched the tea party in 2009) intoned: “We have a dependency society. We do. It’s a fact. I’m not saying there aren’t subsets of people, whether they’re retired or can’t work or whether they’re too old to work, but when I look at the labor force participation rate, and I see that out of the eligible pool of workers, we’re bringing forth the fewest to actually have a job, there is a problem here. Maybe the media ought to quit hiding under tables and look at some of the bigger damn issues.”
The Romney team also pointed to a 1998 tape in which Obama affirmed his belief in “redistribution” and his comments in 2008, accusing middle Americans of “clinging” to guns and religion. But Romney did the bulk of the work, attempting to turn lemons into lemonade.
He did that primarily by venturing onto Neil Cavuto’s Fox News show, where he was careful to set retirees and veterans away from the moocher list and to try to make clear that he still wanted to reach some of those Obama voters.
When Romney extols the opportunity society and points, for example, to the increase in those signed up for food stamps, he’s likely winning over some middle- and working-class voters (not to mention pumping up his base) who suspect many people are getting a “free ride.” (“The president’s view is one of a larger government. There’s a tape that just came out today with the president saying he likes redistribution. I disagree. I think a society based upon a government-centered nation […] that’s the wrong course for America. That will not build a strong America or help people out of poverty.”)
It’s not a positive, however, for Romney to say that those not currently paying taxes won’t vote for him or won’t be interested in his message; to the contrary, the unemployed and those who would like to work themselves up the ladder are precisely the voters he should be attracting.
Romney has stumbled (or been forced) into a debate about the size of government, the extent of the safety net and the cost of maintaining a government with more and more people receiving benefits. That topic is a good one for Romney, provided he can sharpen his rhetoric and make clear that an opportunity society works for everyone, especially those who would like to move up the ladder of success.
The video is hardly a death blow to Romney’s campaign, and in touching a nerve among many voters about the size of government and the extent of government benefits, he may have turned the race onto more favorable terrain for himself. Let’s see if he can sustain the argument over the days to follow.