We Are the 47%: The Lousy Math Behind Romney's Gaffe

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Sept. 17 2012 5:25 PM

We Are the 47%: The Lousy Math Behind Romney's Gaffe

Way back in August 2011, when the Republican presidential primary was still in its race-to-the-right phase, I noticed that the contenders kept attacking "the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay taxes." Rick Perry, in his announcement speech, told activists that he and they were "dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don't even pay any income tax." As stimulus-minded Obama tax policies increased the number of Americans who paid no net income taxes, Republicans started characterizing these people as entitled and basically enslaved -- moochers that the rest of us had to pay for. After the Occupy Wall Street-related Tumblr "We Are the 99%" went large, conservatives started a Tumbler titled "We Are the 53%." They were the makers; all of y'all were the takers.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Up to now, apart from a few slips, Mitt Romney had been sidestepping this front of the class war.* Right up until this fundraiser, video of which was leaked to David Corn.

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There's a lot here, but the main problem for Romney is that he goes even further than Perry in his critique of the people who don't pay income taxes. "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," he says. "All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who 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're hopeless. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

Got that? Romney is conflating the people who pay no net income tax with the people so dependent on government aid that they have to vote for Obama. But these aren't the same people! Most of the "lucky duckies," to use the classic WSJ term, are old people who subsist on Social Security. Elderly voters broke big for Republicans in 2010. Scores of poor whites who benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit vote for Republicans.

So Romney's conflating two concepts. One is that people who pay no net income taxes don't understand the "cost" of government. The other is that the socialist Democrats are voting themselves back into power by creating a poorer, more dependent electorate -- one that gets by on food stamps and unearned welfare checks. This is Tea Party rhetoric churned into something new and stupid.

The Romney campaign's official clean-up quote (from Gail Gitcho) is... well, it's a little better.

Mitt Romney wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy. As the governor has made clear all year, he is concerned about the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government, including the record number of people who are on food stamps, nearly one in six Americans in poverty, and the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work. Mitt Romney's plan creates 12 million new jobs in four years, grows the economy and moves Americans off of government dependency and into jobs.

There we go! The dumb voters that Obama's counting on are the one getting direct benefits, not the ones benefitting from temporary tax cut stimulus. I'm curious to see how conservatives interpret Romney's comment that he can't run on tax cuts, because one reason the "lucky ducky" number is so high is that both parties have been swiss-cheesing the code to win elections.

UPDATE: I wrote on Friday about how conservatives think Obama's giveaways are giving him the election, and now realize that Rush Limbaugh said almost exactly what Romney says here.

We have 48 million Americans, 47 million on food stamps and the regime is advertising for more, we have 47, 48 percent who pay no income taxes. We have 3 million more off the unemployment rolls and on the disability rolls, and they all vote.

*The main slip occured when Romney said he was "not concerned about the very poor," because they, unlike the middle class, have government benefits filling the month-to-month budget gaps.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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