Much of the American electorate was completely bored with the 2012 presidential campaign when the release of Mitt Romney’s fundraiser video rocked the nation like a massive explosion.
The secretly recorded video, capturing the carefully controlled Romney in an unscripted and candid moment, caught the attention of Americans who had tuned out of the race between Romney and President Obama.
For many Americans, broadcasts of TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” were more scintillating than politicians speaking at the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
Calibrating word choices, withholding the details of likely policy changes and repeating well-worn campaign phrases have become the stock in trade of modern presidential candidates.
So it was rather stunning to read that Romney bluntly told his donors that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay federal income taxes. He added they “believe that they are victims, who believe the 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.”
No doubt Romney grimaced when he heard himself saying on the video:
“My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
When the postmortems are written about the 2012 presidential campaign, Romney’s video characterization of nearly half of the population as “victims” will figure prominently.
Altered the dynamic of race
It’s clear that the video has altered the dynamic between Republican Romney and Democrat Obama, but it also has ignited a debate and raised questions among Americans who don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Rachel Maddow on a daily basis.
It’s also awakened a press corps that now has the opportunity to explain the nation’s financial challenges to Americans who are newly engaged on the topic of budget choices and the political values that underpin them.
At first, it was startling to hear Romney say that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay federal taxes. But that number was validated by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, which calculated that 46.4 percent of American households didn’t pay federal income taxes last year.
The logical question to ask is: How is it possible that almost half of American households aren’t paying federal income taxes?
There are a lot of senior citizens and working poor people in the 46.4 percent.
The earned-income tax credit (EITC), championed by Republican President Ronald Reagan, and the child tax credit, supported by Republican President George W. Bush, help erase federal tax liability for millions of poor working families.
The presidential and vice presidential debates will provide prime arenas for journalists and citizens to press the candidates on what they would do with these tax credits — keep them, kill them or modify them.
But it’s also critical to hold the candidates accountable by asking specific questions about what they plan to do about Social Security and Medicare as the United States wrestles with a ticking demographic clock.
We’ve known for many years that there are fewer workers following on the heels of baby boomers and current-day senior citizens. But politicians in Washington have been incapable or unwilling to address how they will pay for Social Security and Medicare in the future or how they will reform the programs.
U.S. Senate and House candidates should be aggressively quizzed about these topics as well as they court votes.
While government entitlement spending is a huge issue that must be debated in the final weeks of this campaign, the No. 1 issue must remain the health of the U.S. economy.
Unless the U.S. economy starts gaining some traction, the ranks of poor people will multiply and an American middle-class lifestyle will disappear for millions.
Some conservatives on talk radio were delighted by Romney’s video comments because they elevated the issue of the “takers,” people who rely on government benefits. Some Democrats viewed Romney as delivering a self-inflicted blow, which could put him on the defensive for weeks.
In 2008, GOP candidate John McCain was frequently overshadowed by his polarizing running mate, Sarah Palin. In the final phase of the 2012 campaign, Democrats won’t let Romney waltz away from his 47 percent comments. Even though the former Massachusetts governor has tried to cast his tax positions in language that is less offensive to many Americans, the furor over his video could continue to dog his campaign.
When he was speaking candidly to campaign supporters in May, Romney didn’t have a clue that someone was recording him and could potentially sabotage his campaign. Romney has learned the lesson that you can never assume that you are among trusted friends.
Romney’s unfiltered comments are public and available for everyone to read. He was making a raw political calculation, and people will cheer or condemn him for what he said.
Now it’s time for Romney and Obama to engage in a full-throated debate about their visions for America and what they’ll do to buttress the job and business climate.
Fedor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.