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.

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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