Mitt Romney’s decision to reaffirm rather than renounce his controversial taped comments about dependency underscores the extent to which Republicans want to frame the presidential election as a contest between “makers and takers” — as well as the risk that construct could pose to a GOP coalition that has grown increasingly dependent on older voters who rely on government aid.
Romney, in his initial comments at a private May fundraiser that were released by Mother Jones magazine, conflated the concern among conservatives about two distinct trends: The fact that the share of Americans who live in households that receive some government benefit is approaching 50 percent, according to the Census Bureau, even as the share of households that pay federal income taxes is falling toward 50 percent or slightly below, depending on the estimate.
Far from a gaffe, Romney’s remarks reflected both a long-standing belief among conservatives that the nation faces a “tipping point” in which growing dependency will create an insurmountable electoral majority for big government — and Democratic candidates. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney’s running mate, has delivered similar arguments for years. “We risk hitting [a] tipping point in our society where we have more takers than makers,” he said recently. “President Obama’s policies are feverishly putting more people into the column of being takers than makers … being more dependent.”
The conservative Heritage Foundation, in the latest edition of its “Index of Dependence on Government” likewise concluded earlier this year: “Perhaps the greatest danger is that the swelling ranks of Americans who enjoy government services and benefits for which they pay few or no taxes will lead to a spreading sense of entitlement that is simply incompatible with self-government.”
Throughout the summer, the Romney campaign has heavily relied on these arguments to fashion its case against Obama. In particular, Romney has used the “takers versus makers” framing to rebut the relentless Democratic accusation that he favors the rich over the middle class: In essence, he has responded by arguing that Obama favors the poor over the middle class by promoting programs that encourage dependency and demand redistribution.
The sentiments Romney expressed at the fundraiser made more explicit arguments that are implicit in his campaign ads this summer on welfare and Medicare (in which a narrator warns, over pictures of worried older whites, that Obama, to finance his health care reform, has diverted funds from the program to an entitlement that’s “not for you”). Those claims reached a crescendo at the Republican convention, where a succession of speakers sought to position the GOP as defending an economically squeezed middle class against a Democratic coalition determined to transfer income to “undeserving” claimants, from illegal immigrants to public employees.
That language pointedly echoed arguments from the Ronald Reagan era, when Republican claims that Democrats supported a redistribution of income from the hard-pressed middle class to the idle poor helped the GOP make enormous inroads among whites, particularly those in the working class. Those disputes between the parties receded as Bill Clinton promoted welfare reform and tough measures against crime, but hard times have brought them back to the surface in recent years.
“I told my friends I felt I was at the 1980 or 1984 Republican convention,” said Democratic consultant Donna Brazile after attending the GOP gathering. “They are basically saying, ‘We are the ones who are working, and the other side is [for] those who are not working and are draining resources from us.’ ”
GOP pollster Whit Ayres says that focus groups still find a powerful response to the basic argument Romney delivered in his taped comments. “Much of what he was saying in the tape is stuff we hear in focus groups all the time — where people are complaining there are too many people who are not carrying their own weight and too many people living off the sweat of others,” Ayres said. “The fundamental message that we have too many people taking and not enough people giving is very consistent with a majority of voters in this country.”
Democrats remain dubious those arguments will cut as deeply as they did during the 1980s. “This feels like a black-and-white movie in a color age,” said Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN, a Democratic advocacy group. “The cards they are playing are from a deck that is 25 years old. It is going to work for certain segments of the aging white population. But it just reinforces President Obama’s framing of this choice as a choice between forward and backward.”