Romney’s “47 Percent” vs. Obama’s “Cling to Guns”: Which Gaffe Is Worse?

How you look at things.
Sept. 18 2012 8:56 AM

Half-Hearted Mitt

Romney says he’s ignoring 47 percent of America. Obama said rural voters cling to guns and religion. Which is worse?

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He also advises the volunteers not to write off every voter who seems unreceptive. The tough reception, he suggests, might be just a “layer of skepticism,” a “part of them that just doesn't buy it.” Beneath that layer, the whole voter is more complicated.

In particular, Obama rejects the caricature of hostile white voters as racists. Instead of assuming that they just ”don’t want to vote for the black guy,” he asks his volunteers to focus on these voters’ economic concerns. He counsels empathy. “They feel so betrayed,” he says.

The whole thrust of Obama’s answer is persuasion. He calls guns-and-religion precincts “the places where we are going to have to do the most work.” He says “our challenge is to get people persuaded” in those neighborhoods. “The important thing,” he concludes, “is that you show up” and make the case, based on tax and health care policy.

"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right? 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. That that's an entitlement, and that government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49—he starts off with a huge number. 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.

"So he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And so 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. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not …"

Notice the differences. Romney, unlike Obama, writes off skeptical voters: “They will vote for this president no matter what.” He simplifies and caricatures them: They “believe that they are victims … I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility.” He counsels not empathy but indifference: “My job is not to worry about those people.” And he speaks this way not about a fringe constituency, but about 47 to 49 percent of the country.

Why does Romney talk this way? Maybe it’s because he thinks like a CEO, telling his investors how he’ll hit his revenue numbers by focusing on half the market. Maybe it’s because, as a businessman, he believes it’s efficient to make broad judgments about programs and constituencies that can’t be salvaged. Whatever the reason, these two recordings—these peeks at what the candidates tell their supporters when they think we aren’t looking—show us that one man thinks very differently from the other.

Last night, after Mother Jones posted the video, Romney tried to revise his remarks. He said the 47 to 49 percent of voters who support Obama aren’t absolutely certain to vote that way. He insisted, “Of course, individuals are going to take responsibility for their lives. My campaign is about helping people take more responsibility and becoming employed again.” And he pleaded, “This is really a discussion about the political process of winning the election … Typically I don’t talk about process in speeches, because I think candidates are wiser to talk about policy and their vision than to talk about how they’re going to win an election.”

We get it, Mitt. Onstage, you pretend to court us. Backstage, you badmouth and dismiss us. Not just the left, but the 49 percent. You say the president has failed to unite the country. That may be true. But you aren’t even trying.

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