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?

Mitt Romney.
Mitt Romney at a Monday news conference, trying to clean up his remarks about 47 percent of Americans

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

Mitt Romney has been caught on camera telling his donors that nearly 50 percent of Americans are dependent on government, that we’ll never take responsibility for our lives, and that it isn’t his job to worry about us.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It’s hard to salvage a presidential candidacy after saying something like that. But Romney’s supporters are doing their best. His gaffe, they argue, is no worse than what Barack Obama once told his donors about voters who defend guns and religion.

So let’s compare the two episodes. Let’s see what they tell us about Romney and Obama.

In April 2008, Obama spoke at a fundraiser in San Francisco. Here’s what he said, according to an audio recording published by the Huffington Post:

"We’ve got a couple of folks who are heading out to Pennsylvania to go door to door with us. And the question was: What kinds of questions should I expect them to get? … The places where we are going to have to do the most work are the places where people feel most cynical about government. The people are misapprehend—I think they're misunderstanding why the demographics in our—in this contest have broken out as they are. Because everybody just ascribes it to “white working-class don't want to work—don't want to vote for the black guy.” That's—there were intimations of that, there was an article in the Sunday New York Times today that kind of implies that it's sort of a race thing. …

"Here’s what it is: In a lot of these communities in big industrial states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, people have been beaten down so long, they feel so betrayed by government, that when they hear a pitch that is premised on not being cynical about government, there’s a part of them that just doesn't buy it. And when it's delivered by—it is true that when it's delivered by a 46-year-old black man named Barack Obama, then that adds another layer of skepticism. (Audience laughs.)

"But—so the questions you're most likely to get are going to be: 'Well, you know, what’s this guy going to do for me? What’s the concrete thing?' And what they want to hear is—you know, so we'll give you talking points about what we're proposing: to close tax loopholes and roll back, you know, the top—the tax cuts for the top 1 percent. Obama's going to give tax breaks to middle-class folks, and we're going to provide health care for every American. You know, we’ll have a series of talking points.

"But the truth is that our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's no evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio—like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years, and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration and the Bush administration. And each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate. And they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns or religion, or antipathy toward people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or, you know, anti-trade sentiment [as] a way to explain their frustrations.

"Now, these are in some communities. You know, I think what you'll find is that people of every background—there are going to be a mix of people. You can go in the toughest neighborhood, you know, working-class lunch-pail folks, and you'll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you’d think that I'd be very strong, and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you're doing what you're doing."

Conservatives find Obama’s line about guns, religion, and immigration patronizing. They’re right. The recording exposes Obama’s assumption that blue-collar conservatism on these issues should be taken not at face value but as a psychological symptom or rationalization.

But notice what else the recording shows. Obama tells his audience not to write off any group.  He recommends humility and openness. Even in the most unlikely neighborhoods, among “people of every background,” he tells his volunteers they’ll find supporters.