The Huffington Post and Mother Jones both post audio of what may be a blockbuster moment: Mitt Romney telling a private fundraiser that 47 percent of the American people — the voters who can be counted on to vote for Obama — are “dependent on government,” “believe that they are victims,” and think government “has a responsibility to care for them.”

“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” Romney says. Mother Jones’ video is here.

The Romney press office repeatedly refused to comment on the video. Here’s a transcript:

“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 that 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...
“Our message of low taxes doesn’t my job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful....”

Romney seems to be thinking he’s making an electoral argument here — these voters are simply not gettable for him, so he needs to focus on the center. But his explanation veers into a truly extreme version of a theory that’s widespread on the right: Democrats are trying to encourage dependency on government for the explicit purpose of enlarging the pool of voters who can be relied upon to vote Democratic for the rest of their lives, in order to preserve the government handouts they enjoy.

In Romney’s telling, all of these 47 percent of voters are complicit in this arrangement. As a result, there is no hope of ever persuading them to take personal responsibility for their lives. He seems to be conflating the government-dependency conspiracy theory with another right wing meme — the complaint that 47 percent of Americans pay no income taxes. Put those together and you arrive at Romney’s formulation.

In a sense, this is an extreme version of a narrative Romney has adopted on multiple fronts. He has charged that Obama is taking away hard won Medicare benefits from seniors to redistribute them to other people; he claims Obama is gutting welfare reform to send welfare checks to those who don’t work; and has even suggested Obama is doing the latter to appeal to his “base.” The attacks on Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech are of a piece with this, pushing the notion that Obama demeans your hard work and individual initiative because he thinks only government-sponsored success constitues real achievement and wants to expand government into every aspect of our lives, forever increasing government dependency and perpetually eroding good old fashioned American self reliance.

I’ve argued here that the Romney campaign often seems to be running against a version of Obama that exists only in the imagination of the Fox/Limbaugh base and doesn’t really exist in the minds of swing and undecided voters. This takes the narrative to a whole new level; how will voters in the middle react to his contemptuous tone towards nearly half of Americans? What’s more, the ranks of the oft-discussed 47 percent, many of whom pay no federal income taxes but do pay state and local taxes , are swelled with working class voters and seniors, and many of them are obviously Romney supporters — and hardly think of themselves as Big Government freeloaders. Yet Romney, inadvertently or not, has lumped them all in with his Obama-fosters-government-dependency narrative.


UPDATE: The Obama campaign pounces:

“It’s shocking that a candidate for President of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare to a group of wealthy donors that half the American people view themselves as ‘victims,’ entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to take ‘personal responsibility’ for their lives. It’s hard to serve as president for all Americans when you’ve disdainfully written off half the nation.”

UPDATE II: Another take on why Romney’s theory of the freeloading 47 percent really matters.