Democrats in Colorado have dropped what they hope will be a bombshell on Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez, a video of the former congressman starring in his own “47 percent” video. Beauprez won the GOP nomination last week; one assumes the opposition researchers were holding it until it could have its maximum impact. While it might or might not have a profound effect on this particular race, it’s worth discussing both why this kind of thing keeps happening to Republicans and what it means for our broader discussion of economics and inequality.
The Beauprez video was taken in 2010, in an appearance before a Rotary Club, and it’s familiar by now — the 47 percent figure, the assurance that those in the room are not part of the moocher class, and the conspiratorial theory that Democrats have created this situation for political ends:
“I see something that frankly doesn’t surprise me, having been on Ways and Means Committee: 47 percent of all Americans pay no federal income tax. I’m guessing that most of you in this room are not in that 47 percent — God bless you — but what that tells me is that we’ve got almost half the population perfectly happy that somebody else is paying the bill, and most of that half is you all. I submit to you that there is a political strategy to get slightly over half and have a permanent ruling political majority by keeping over half of the population dependent on the largess of government that somebody else is paying for.”
If you want a refresher on the 47 percent claim, The Post’s Fact Checker did one in 2012, but the short version is that while approximately that many people don’t pay federal income tax (credit to Beauprez for being specific about that), many of them are elderly people no longer working, and most of the rest pay substantial payroll taxes, not to mention all the other kinds of taxes we all do, such as gas taxes and sales taxes and property taxes.
But what’s revealing about this factoid is that when it is offered, you almost never hear it followed by a particular policy argument about taxes. Neither Beauprez nor Mitt Romney raised the 47 percent claim and then said that in response we ought to raise rates on the working poor or cut the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is what brings the federal income tax bill for so many of them down to zero (and, by the way, was once something Republicans championed). That’s because the 47 percent argument isn’t really about tax policy. It’s about aiming resentment downward, dividing Americans into the virtuous and the contemptible.
Conservatives would argue that Democrats do something similar when they talk about the 1 percent getting richer while the rest of us struggle to get by. Perhaps, but no Democratic candidate is going to be particularly embarrassed if a video emerges of her decrying rapacious Wall Street vultures; there just aren’t that many of them.
The means of both capturing and distributing remarks candidates would prefer that only a few people hear are more widely available than ever before, and that at least means you can’t say awful things to certain groups and assume that they will remain private. That isn’t to say candidates don’t still tell whoever they’re talking to what they think that audience wants to hear (“Why yes, members of the Main Street Knitting Circle, I, too, am deeply concerned about the rising price of yarn”), but once you start tossing barbs around, you’d better make sure your target doesn’t include people whose votes you might need.
Electoral politics is largely about identity — who’s “one of us” and who isn’t, and the accompanying ideas of whom you should disdain, fear or even hate. It wasn’t until Romney’s video that many Republicans realized just how toxic the argument about half of Americans being economic leeches could be. The 47 percent figure had been repeated on Fox News and talk radio for years, but once it was put before an audience broader than that bubble, the reaction was fierce.
I doubt Beauprez or any other Republican running in a swing state is saying it anymore, and perhaps Colorado voters will choose to ignore what he said four years ago and focus on what he’s saying today. But it still highlights the fundamental problem Republicans face when talking about economics. They’ve spent so much time praising the economy’s winners and pouring scorn on those who struggle that when they have to appeal to an electorate that includes both, their own words inevitably come back to bite them. It’s a problem they still haven’t figured out how to solve.