Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mitt Romney’s Moment of Truth: The 47 Percent and the Issue of Dependency

by Michael Kaplan

Mitt Romney delivering his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, August 30, 2012.

Free enterprise has done more to bless humanity than any other economic system not only because it is the only system that creates a prosperous middle class, but also because it is the only system where the individual enjoys the freedom to guide and build his or her own life. Free enterprise cannot only make us better off financially, it can make us better people. . . . Work builds self-esteem.It transforms minds from fantasy and fanaticism to reality and grounding. Work will not long tolerate corruption nor quietly endure the brazen theft by government of the product of hard-working men and women.

When one thinks of Mitt Romney, passion is not the first word that comes to mind. The Republican presidential candidate does not come across as a particularly passionate guy. He is in many ways a throwback to the 1950s era of Father Knows Best: a calm, old fashioned, reserved, straight-arrow patriarch, who keeps his feelings buttoned up inside his impeccably tailored business suit. Think of Mad Men’s Don Draper without the psychological baggage and compulsive womanizing. This emotional reserve, suitable perhaps for the CEO of Bain Capital, has not helped Governor Romney in his campaign, making it difficult for him, unlike President Obama, to form an emotional connection with the American electorate. Mitt Romney may be a competent business executive and technocrat, but he is uncool and dull, the very opposite of the ultra-hip and cool Barack Obama. Let’s face it: before his outstanding performance in the first presidential debate on October 3, Mitt Romney was a failure as a candidate; one who put audiences to sleep and was unable to articulate a coherent and compelling message. Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan.

Governor Romney is going to have to channel the spirit of Ronald Reagan, and the spirit of Andrew Jackson too, and soon, if he wants to win this election. As Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker put it, “I think you’ve gotta get off the heels and move forward. I think Americans want a fighter . . . I want to see fire in the belly.” Mitt really needs to show some passion. Can he do it? On his foreign policy trip to Britain, Israel, and Poland, in his campaign stops with Paul Ryan, in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, and in the first presidential debate, Romney gave hints that underneath his phlegmatic, buttoned-up exterior burned a passionate, poetic, dare I say Jacksonian, fire in the belly and love of country.

This passion also came through at a speech he delivered at a fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida, on May 17; a speech which was secretly filmed and later released to the venerable progressive magazine Mother Jones, by of all people James Earl Carter IV, grandson of former President Jimmy Carter. And so Mitt Romney and his campaign now face a moment of truth. It is a moment of truth in two ways: first, Romney told the truth about the economic and moral challenge facing the nation when 47 percent of its people are at risk of sinking into dependency; and second, is the Romney campaign now ready to act on that truth, to aggressively push his pro-growth oppoturnity agenda forward and do what it takes to win this election?

Mitt Romney has to stop playing small ball and go bigto use a metaphor from his beloved Boston Red Sox, he should aim to hit that ball over the Green Monster and out of Fenway Park. Mitt can do this by becoming the champion of conservativism, its happy warrior as Monica Crowley would say, asserting conservative ideas of liberty and American exceptionalism with passion and gusto. He must unrelentingly attack Barack Obama’s record in both domestic and foreign policy. He needs to show how the faltering economy and the revival of the Islamic jihadist war against the United States are the direct results of the ideological and policy failures of the Obama administration. He should paint a picture of what four more years of an Obama presidency would mean for the nation: a stagnating economy that produces fewer jobs and diminished wealth creation; an expanding and increasingly intrusive government bureaucracy; federal, state, and local governments headed toward fiscal collapse; an America that can no longer promote liberty and prosperity at home or command respect in the world. He has to make crystal clear why the twentieth-century social welfare administrative state—the blue model—cannot be sustained in the twenty-first century. And Mitt Romney needs to articulate his own pro-growth message of hope and opportunity. He must put forward a Romney alternative: specific policy proposals that are grounded in free-market capitalism and traditional American values, and make the case for how they will turn the country around and renew American exceptionalism for the twenty-first century. He started to do this in the first presidential debate. Keep it up Mitt, keep it up.

What Mitt Romney must also do is rally the Jacksonian conservative base to his cause. The former Massachusetts governor cannot defeat Barack Obama and win the White House without an energized Jacksonian America fully committed to his victory. As Judge Andrew Napolitano put it, Romney “needs to recognize that his audience for victory is not his former neighbors in Boston, but Joe Sixpack in the heartland.” This means he must engage the social and cultural issues that are so important to Jacksonian conservatives, as well as taking strong stands on foreign policy and the economy. We know for sure that Governor Romney is passionate about free enterprise. The Boca Raton speech shows that Romney is well versed in Jacksonian ideas of “producerism,” what conservatives today like to call “the makers vs. the takers.” This is important, for Jacksonians have historically defined themselves first and foremost as hard-working productive Americans, the people who make the country work.

I’ve posted the key excerpt from the speech below. The full speech can be found here, here, and here.

Not too long ago I talked about the election and Mitt Romney’s prospects with Ed, a guy I work out with at the gym. A small businessman who owns an insurance company which he runs with his sons, Ed was really pissed off at President Obama’s suggestion that he didn’t build his business—the now infamous “you didn’t build that” line from the president’s July 13 speech in Roanoke, Virginia. Ed then posed this question: are there enough Americans left who are not dependent on government, who still believe in free enterprise and self-reliance, who will support Romney and turn the country around? I told him that’s exactly what this election and the future of America will turn on. This is the question that Governor Romney tried to address at the Boca Raton fundraiser.

An audience member at the fundraiser put the question to the governor in words quite similar to Ed’s. “For the last three years, all everybody’s been told is, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’ How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself?” To which Romney responded:
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 the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—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. And 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, what it looks like. I mean, when you ask those people . . .we do all these polls—I find it amazing—we poll all these people, see where you stand on the polls, but 45 percent of the people will go with a Republican, and 48 or 4 . . .
Romney admitted at a press conference after the video was made public that his remarks were “not elegantly stated.” That’s all too true. Paul Ryan agreed, saying that the comments as presented were a misstep. Then again, Mitt is not really known for his eloquent oratory; as I noted above he’s no Ronald Reagan. But he stood by his statement, clarifying and elaborating on it to Neil Cavuto on Fox News. Emphasizing his broader ideological perspective, Romney told Cavuto, “Frankly, we have two very different views about America. The president’s view is one of a larger government. . . . I disagree. I think a society based on a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that’s the wrong course for America. That will not build a strong America or help people out of poverty.” Romney made clear that he did not consider 47 percent of the American people to be moochers or takers. Many are active members of the military or disabled veterans. Others are retirees who worked hard their entire lives, or people working two or more jobs to make ends meet. Many pay property, payroll, and other taxes. The problem, Romney insisted, was a hard core of people within that 47 percent who have become largely dependent on government entitlements, for whom his message of lower taxes and smaller government has little appeal.
Romney’s 47 percent remarks can be compared the bitter clinger remarks made by then-candidate Barack Obama at an April 6, 2008 fundraiser in San Francisco. In each case the candidate, not knowing that he was being secretly recorded, was open and honest in airing some controversial views. Obama at his fundraiser wrote off Jacksonians as unreconstructed racists, xenophobes, and religious bigots. This was an ugly example of liberal progressive contempt for a large part of the American people—boobus americanus. And it is obviously untrue. Mitt Romney’s only misstep was the awkward way in which he expressed his ideas, which left him open to charges of class warfare by the liberal media. The substance of what he said, of the tragedy of growing numbers of Americans forced into dependence on government by a stagnating Obama economy, is all too painfully true.

So who are these Americans, this hard core—the takers as many conservatives now say—who have become trapped in long-term dependence on government? Broadly speaking—and broad generalizations are always open to exceptions—they are those who receive means tested benefits. Such benefits, distributed to individuals or families with low incomes, include programs such as food stamps, welfare, Section 8 housing, and Medicaid, among others. Dick Morris estimates that about 100 million Americans out of a population of 308 million currently receive benefits. That’s close to one-third of all Americans (33 percent instead of 47 percent). While some no doubt are people who lost their jobs and are using public assistance as a stop gap until they can get back into the labor market, others will remain on the dole indefinitely. In the case of welfare (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), this has led to the tragedy of inner city social dysfunction with families mired in dependency and despondency for generation after generation.
Janet Daley, looking at the American presidential election from a British perspective, believes that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are forcing the American people to confront the central dilemma facing all liberal democracies in the twenty-first century: how to move beyond the disintegrating blue model welfare state to a new social model. Writing in The Telegraph, Daley insists that “the myth of a democratic socialist society funded by capitalism is finished. . . . The magic formula in which the wealth produced by the market economy is redistributed by the state—from those who produce it to those whom the government believes deserve it—has gone bust.” Free-market capitalism can’t produce enough wealth to support the level of entitlements to which many in the 47 percent have come to expect under the blue model. The Romney/Ryan program, Daley argues, represents “a reassertion of the basic values of American political culture: self-determination, individual aspiration and genuine community, as opposed to belief in the state as the fount of all social virtue.” This is in sharp contrast to Barack Obama’s agenda of moving America even closer to European-style social democracy, a model which has clearly failed. Romney and Ryan must sharpen and hammer home this message at every opportunity in the remaining weeks of the campaign.
(Walter Russell Mead has dealt with the issue of how to move beyond the blue model at length. Click here for his article on “The Once and Future Liberalism.”)
Dependency, as Daley suggests, is more than an economic issue: it is a moral issue. At the height of the Great Depression Franklin D. Roosevelt feared that the social welfare programs he was creating could undermine the American people’s commitment to self-reliance and rugged individualism.  “The lessons of history,” FDR warned in his 1935 State of the Union Address, “show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fibre. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” Mitt Romney in 2012 is making the same moral argument on the dangers of dependency that FDR, the very architect of the blue model, made in 1935. Today, with forty-seven million Americans receiving food stamps, Patrick J. Buchanan asks: “Does it not say something alarming when one in seven Americans cannot rely upon themselves or their families for their daily bread?” Buchanan goes on that “during the Chicago school strike, we learned that 86 percent of the 350,000 pupils were getting free or subsidized meals twice a day. What kind of society have we become when children in a great city cannot rely on mothers or fathers for a bowl of cereal in the morning and a brown bag with a sandwich and apple in it for lunch?” Such figures lend credence to Newt Gingrich’s charge that Barack Obama is the “food stamp president.”
John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson’s back-stabbing vice president and bitter foe, is best remembered today as the champion of Southern sectionalism and slavery. But Calhoun was also a serious political philosopher; Richard Hofstadter called him “The Marx of the Master Class.” In 1849, a year before his death, Calhoun published A Disquisition on Government, which summed up his lifetime of thinking on politics. Calhoun believed that the most dangerous division in a society was between those who created wealth and paid taxes and those to whom the wealth was redistributed through government benefits.

The necessary result, then, of the unequal fiscal action of the government is, to divide the community into two great classes; one consisting of those who, in reality, pay the taxes, and, of course, bear exclusively the burthen of supporting the government; and the other, of those who are the recipients of their proceeds, through disbursements, and who are, in fact, supported by the government; or, in fewer words, to divide it into tax-payers and tax-consumers.
This was a more philosophical way of stating the Jacksonian paradigm of the makers vs. the takers. A nation divided along such lines Calhoun maintained “must give rise to two parties, and to violent conflicts and struggles between them, to obtain the control of the government.” John C. Calhoun was an outstanding writer and thinker while Mitt Romney is not. Yet in his much less eloquent way Romney, by using the paradigm of the 47 percent, is making the same moral argument against entitlement and dependency that Calhoun made 163 years ago. And it is no less true now than it was then.
This moral argument over dependency, Yuval Levin writes in The Weekly Standard, is the real debate between Democrats and Republicans in the 2012 election. The idea of earned success, Levin reminds us, is at the heart of American exceptionalism. “It is built upon incentives and institutionspatterns of praise and blame and honor and dutythat yield the drive to work and innovate, and that alone make genuine self-reliance possible.” The risk-taking entrepreneur, who pursues a dream, builds an empire, and in doing so creates wealth and jobs is one of America’s great culture heroes. But to liberal Democrats who go along with President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” mantra, such men and women—Mitt Romney for one—are pirates who did not earn their success. Obama’s contempt for Romney and everything he stands for was on display in the first presidential debate. And such liberal Democrats, unlike FDR, don’t see dependency as a moral problem. Levin suggests that the problem of dependency is better understood as a problem of entitlement. It’s the sense of entitlement, the belief that you are owed benefits and goodies that you did not earn, that undermines and destroys self-reliance, independence, and the concept of republican citizenship. Many people who are not poor and don’t need public support to survive (and there are no doubt more than a few such folk among the 47 percent) but nonetheless feel entitled to government largesse, are the real danger to the nation. Such people in Levin’s words “come to approach their government as claimants, not as self-governing citizens.”
Mitt Romney must continue to frame the issue of dependency and entitlement in moral terms. “Since our founding,” Romney wrote in USA Today, “America has promoted personal responsibility, the dignity of work and the value of education. Those values made our nation the hope of the earth and our economy the envy of the world.” Economic growth is a moral imperative; it is the only proven path to social mobility. A growing economy lifts people out of poverty and dependence and into the dignity of self-reliance and independence. “Efforts that promote hard work and personal responsibility over government dependency make America strong. When the economy is growing and Americans are working, everyone involved has a shared sense of achievement, not to mention the basic sense of pride that comes with the paycheck they earn.” Mitt Romney’s mission is to revive the American economy and enable those in the 47 percent who are neither elderly nor disabled to once again contribute to the engine of human creativity that is America.
© 2012 Michael Kaplan


  1. Michael,

    Great to see a new post! You hit the nail on the head, but I wonder about one thing.

    Yes, Mitt must "continue to frame the issue of dependency and entitlement in moral terms." as you state, but how will it translate to an electorate that pretty much gets it's "news and views" in sound bites delivered by what I feel is a co-opted media?

    As we have at least 2 generations of people that in my view are not even educated properly and in fact do not know basic history as to things like communism, self-dependence or the basic ideals this country was founded on, how does one get through the the 47% as Mitt puts it.

    You at least have a feel as to my thoughts on politicians in general and especially entrenched politicians who put their power and greed before country. In this past month we have seen openly blatant lies from this administration as to the Mid-East and the Bengazi attack,lies the co-opted media has willingly reported as fact.

    The truth is coming out of course, but the damage is done. The same is true as to the job rate and so much more. Lies, damned lies! (Wish I could remember who said that). I am fond of saying "a perception can be created in ten seconds but can take ten years to erase". As the media will openly create "bad perceptions" of any conservative, it is indeed a tough battle Mitt and others have to fight.

    I really think Mitt has to go farther than just the 46% and the economy. He is a great businessman and that should in theory bode well for the country. He must however hit and hit hard as to the course this President is taking this country not only in foreign relations and ceding of our sovereignty to outside interests, but in fact for his utter disdain towards the laws of our land and the basic ideals

    The 47% as Mitt called them are a huge problem, but not only as to their handout mentality but their complete lack of understanding our basic foundation as to Freedom and self-reliance.

    I know you remember my mantra " the Tea Party movement is a fight for the heart and soul of our country". Since I first wrote that we have unfortunately seen a greater erosion of those ideals as put forward by this President, his party ( and let's not forget the RINOS) as well as the media propaganda industry.

    As one follows the news (thank God for the blogs or all would be lost) one almost has to despair as it really seems we as a country have lost in so many of the electorate the basic ideals you and others so eloquently try to keep alive! Unless we can somehow once again instill the love of Freedom and Liberty in the entire electorate, we are in deep trouble. Mitt and Ryan have got to pound at that!

    Again, as always a great read. History is a great teacher provided one is willing to learn from both the good and bad aspects of it. As such, I always enjoy your well researched articles.

    1. Joe,

      I believe it was Mark Twain who said there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. Perhaps he was thinking of the jobs numbers.

      I agree that Mitt has a huge challenge trying to make the moral argument against dependence and entitlement when faced with a hostile liberal media determined to distort his message. Like Reagan he is going to have to talk over the head of the media directly to the American people. He was able to do this in the first presidential debate; the most recent poll numbers suggest that he is gaining momentum. We'll have to see how the next few weeks play out. And with talk radio,cable, blogs, and other alternative media, Romney cerainly has more ways to reach the public than Reagan had.

      I just watched the VP debate. Ryan came off quite well I think. He was calm, polite, and knowledgeable and made the case for his policies. Biden came off as rude and obnoxious.

      I remember well your mantra about the Tea Party fighting for the heart and soul of the country. Let's hope that holds true for the next three weeks. And unfortunately your point about two generations being largely ignorant of history is all too true. Fighting this ignorance is my task each day in class.

      I'm working on some posts about what's happening in the Middle East and the latest assaults by the Jihad. There's certainly a lot to say on that topic. As always glad you enjoyed the post.