For many conservatives, the idea is as obvious as gravity: Government has divided America into makers, who work hard and pay taxes, and takers, who don’t do enough of either; there are too few of the former and too many of the latter.
This is the talking point that Mitt Romney bungled.
The Republican presidential candidate, speaking to donors in May, diverged in two ways from standard GOP rhetoric.
For one thing, he picked on the wrong people: the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax. That group includes key GOP constituencies, such as seniors and blue-collar families. So most Republicans target a different set of Americans instead — those who get government benefits.
The other problem was that Romney said these people were already a lost cause — to him, to the GOP and to themselves. That contrasts with a key Republican idea: that most people who are dependent on the government want nothing more than not to be.
“Why a lot of conservatives don’t like the Romney comment is that it is reverse Marxism in a way. . . . You’re a maker or a taker, that’s the most important thing about you,” William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, said on Tuesday. He said that the candidate seems to accept that there will be class divisions in the United States and that “Romney’s response is . . . the rich have to defend themselves against everyone else.”
“The right answer,” Kristol said, “is, ‘No, the Republican Party is the party of upward mobility.’ ”
Romney’s remarks in May were secretly videotaped and posted this week on the Web site of the liberal magazine Mother Jones. Since then, Romney has said that the comments were inartful but that he stands by their substance.
“We were of course talking about a campaign and how [President Obama is] going to get close to half the vote, I’m going to get half the vote, approximately, I hope,” he told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto on Tuesday afternoon. “Frankly, we have two very different views of America.”
In May, at a home in Boca Raton, Fla., Romney told the donors that 47 percent of Americans will vote for Obama “no matter what.”
“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,” Romney says in the video. He continues: “These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax . . .
“And so my job is not to worry about those people,” he goes on. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Before Romney, a number of other Republicans complained about the large fraction of Americans — 46 percent, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center — who pay no federal income taxes. But they generally cast this as a failure of government, not of individuals.
“Any tax code that allows 47 percent of the citizens not to pay . . . you can’t repair it; you can’t fix it; it’s completely broken,” Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), who heads the influential Republican Study Committee, said in April.
In fact, both parties had a hand in creating a class of nonpaying taxpayers. Under President Ronald Reagan and President George W. Bush, tax rates declined for low-income workers. And for many families, those low tax bills are canceled out by tax breaks that come with having children. One of them, the Child Tax Credit, was created under President Bill Clinton and doubled under Bush.
Also, while Romney cast this group as captive to Democrats, other Republicans look at this 46 percent and still see voters.
“Those are not the two same numbers: The 47 percent who [will vote] for Obama are not the 47 percent who don’t pay federal income taxes,” said Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist and head of Americans for Tax Reform, using Romney’s percentage.
Norquist said a retiree whose tax bill has dwindled to nothing is not automatically a liberal Democrat, dependent on the government. “A guy who’s worked all his life and is getting a Social Security check does not look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m on welfare,’ ” Norquist said. He said he still believes that Romney would cut tax rates overall, and he said he is “fine” with the candidate’s remarks in the video.
The Heritage Foundation has used a different approach to measure “dependence on government”: the total percentage of Americans receiving benefits through welfare, food stamps, Social Security, student loans, school lunches and other programs. An official said Tuesday that a new report would place that figure at 41.3 percent.
Other Republicans have also echoed Romney’s broader point in the video: that the American social contract could be undone by a glut of moochers and that Democrats are cynically encouraging this.
“We’re coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society,” Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), said at the Heritage Foundation last year.
But the second part of that message is usually that the “takers” don’t want it that way and instead want to rebuild an independent life.
Ryan described social programs as necessary to “help people who are down on their luck get back onto their feet,” though he warned about the safety net turning into a “hammock that ends up lulling people into lives of dependency.”
Romney’s implication, by contrast, was that the takers might be so for life. On Tuesday, that prompted criticism from two moderate Republican Senate candidates. In Connecticut, Linda McMahon issued a statement saying, “I know that the vast majority of those who rely on government are not in that situation because they want to be.”
And Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.) criticized Romney’s remarks in an e-mail to the Hill newspaper.
“That’s not the way I view the world. As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in. Too many people today who want to work are being forced into public assistance for lack of jobs,” he said.