The real meaning of the "47 per cent"

Why we shouldn't forget Romney's comment.

Mitt Romney. Photograph: Getty Images

We have seen the last presidential debate for 2012 and while the second debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama may have already receded, as will this week's third debate, Americans ought to keep in mind something as they head to the polls in November: the real meaning of that infamous comment about 47 percent of us.

Republican challenger Romney stuck his chin out in the closing moments of that second presidential debate just long enough for Obama, seeing the opening, to wind back a haymaker and clock him. The candidates had been asked what should have been an easy question -- something about how they would respond to distortions and misrepresentations of their character. Romney, perhaps eager to reclaim some of the ground taken from him by a president who (finally) came to play, said he's not as cold-blooded as he appears.

"I care about 100 per cent of the American people. I want 100 per cent of the American people to have a bright and prosperous future. I care about our kids. I understand what it takes to make a bright and prosperous future for America again. I spent my life in the private sector, not in government. I'm a guy who wants to help with the experience I have."

This was a direct reference to a secret video in which Romney said, during a dinner hosting millionaires, that 47 per cent of Americans are not worth appealing to because they consider themselves victims who won't take responsibility for their lives and who are dependent on the government for things like Social Security, food stamps, unemployment insurance, veteran's benefits and federal student loans, all of which citizens pay for in one way or another but that's not the point; the point is half of Americans want to seize the wealth of this country from those of us who earned it (well, they didn't earn it, though they earned interest on it). He said:

"There are 47 per cent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 per cent who are with [Obama], 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. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect."

Notice there's nothing in that video about caring. He doesn't talk about his emotions at all. Indeed, there are no emotions in his assessment people for whom he can't do much, because they don't pay many taxes and so don't see much value in his low tax agenda.

But this is only one step in the evolution of the 47 per cent comment since September. Liberal pundits have also played a role by zeroing in on the fact that Romney disrespected and disparaged huge swathes of the electorate. To understand this, one has to understand the ideal of upward mobility in this country: anyone can succeed in America as long as you work hard, play by the rules and sacrifice a little. To suggest, as Romney does, that those who have worked hard, who have played by the rules and who have sacrificed more than a little are still bums -- well, that's the kind of shit-stain insult that may never wash out.

The president knew this, and threw his hardest punch.

"[W]hen [Romney] said behind closed doors that 47 per cent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about. Folks on Social Security who've worked all their lives. Veterans who've sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country's dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don't make enough."

While I pumped my fist like every other liberal wishing that Obama would, for the love of God, just unload on this guy already, I also worry that we are forgetting something about Romney's original comment. Yes, that video was a liability that he may never overcome, but what's more important is what Romney's 47 per cent suggests for public policy.

Remember that Romney made the following connection: those who don't pay income taxes feel they are entitled to welfare. There has been a lot said about this, especially that he is factually wrong. But that may be missing the point. I suspect that the point, for Romney and for his audience, was giving voice to a political rationale for "entitlement reform" and by that I mean, destroying social insurance programs like Social Security.

Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, is the brains beyond the most recent Republican push to turn Medicare into a voucher program and turn Social Security into a Wall Street portfolio. "Voucher" means you'd get a check from the federal government for a set amount of money. Sounds great except that it won't cover the soaring cost of health insurance. You'd be on the hook for the rest. Social Security is a little more straightforward. Tell the young and restless that they can invest the money. Sounds good until another bubble bursts.

Republicans have long sought these goals but always run into a problem: social insurance programs are very popular, and most attempts to tinker with them result in getting zapped, sometimes forever. One could say that George W. Bush never recovered from his bid to privatize Social Security. He had political capital to spend after 2004. He spent it, and then charged the rest of his term to the GOP's credit card.

To get around this third rail, as it's called here, Republicans have capitalized on the federal deficit hysteria to make the argument that "entitlements" need reform. Recently the conservative narrative revamped the "welfare queen" trope that was so effective in the 1980s by suggesting that half of this country is made of makers and half is made of takers. If something isn't done, we're heading toward totalitarianism.

I wish I were kidding. Romney's comment about 47 per cent of Americans has nothing to do with whether he cares. It was indeed insulting to those who do take responsibility for their own lives even if they don't owe income taxes. But more importantly, and more frightening, is that it suggests an attitude toward social insurance programs that millions depend on.