Today, Republicans jumped all over a 1998 tape showing Obama claiming: “I actually believe in redistribution.” Mitt Romney, in an interview on Fox News, used the new tape to deflect all the negative attention that’s being paid to his denigration of the freeloading 47 percent. But note what he also said:

“Some believe that government should take from some to give to the others. I think the president makes it clear in the tape that was released today that that’s what he believes. I think that’s an entirely foreign concept.
“I believe America was built on the principle of government caring for those in need, but getting out of the way and allowing free people to pursue their dreams. Free people pursuing free enterprises is the only way we’ll create a strong and growing middle class and the only way we’ll help people out of poverty.”

Maybe someone can explain how we can pay for “government caring for those in need” without “taking from some to give to others.” How do you pay for a safety net without redistribution? (Behind closed doors, of course, Romney is far harsher about “those in need.”)

Here is the full 1998 Obama quote that Romney and Republicans are casting as pro “redistribution”:

“The trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution. Because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure that everybody’s got a shot.”

In other words, this is not meaningfully different from what Obama has said thousands of times: He favors taxpayer funded government spending to create opportunity, via investment in education and so forth. And just because he used the word “redistribution” in the process, Romney and Republicans are painting it as radical and a "foreign concept.”

As it happens, this latest exchange does go further in clarifying the true nature of their differences here. When it comes to poverty, Romney believes that government should only pay for maintaining some sort of safety net, for caring for those in need. (The agenda he has embraced would deeply slash that safety net, but put that aside for now). Meanwhile, the logical conclusion of Romney’s own words above is that he doesn’t believe that taxpayer-funded government spending can do anything at all to boost opportunity and lift people out of poverty — only pure economic freedom can do that.

I continue to wonder who the intended audience is for this kind of talk. Republicans seem to believe that the word “redistribution” will raise a red flag for swing voters. Remember how well that worked in 2008, when Joe the Plumber’s “spread the wealth around” exchange with Obama was supposed to mean John McCain had hit political paydirt?

Majorities of Americans support increased education spending and increased investment in infrastructure to create opportunity and jobs. Do they also embrace the “foreign concept” that free enterprise is not the primary driver of growth? Of course not. The two are not mutually exclusive, despite Romney’s effort to create a false choice to the contrary. Romney, meanwhile, has confirmed that only unadulterated economic freedom, and nothing involving government at all, has a role to play in spurring opportunity, at least if he meant what he said today.

Which vision would most swing voters find to be more balanced? Maybe Republicans really have decided this has become nothing more than a “base” election.