By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Mitt Romney, in describing nearly half of Americans as being docile dependents of the state, and saying it's a "foreign concept" for government to redistribute income, is outlining a philosophy that's not only sharply at odds with President Barack Obama's views. It's also difficult to square with the facts of how Social Security, Medicare, the tax code and scores of other institutions work.
Romney's claim that 47 percent of Americans won't take "personal responsibility," which he linked to their failure to owe federal income taxes, instantly crystallized his philosophical differences with Obama when the remarks came to light Monday.
Romney, trying to control the message amid widespread criticism, went further on Tuesday. He told Fox News that it's "an entirely foreign concept" for government to "take from some to give to the others."
The remarks echoed complaints often raised by conservative groups, including tea party activists, who denounce "redistribution of wealth."
But the remarks overlook basic facts, such as how the costly and popular Social Security and Medicare programs shift billions of dollars from younger people — who pay payroll taxes — to older people, who receive the benefits.
Similarly, the nation's progressive income tax system requires wealthy people to pay proportionately more, shifting some of their wealth to poorer people in the form of government services and welfare.
Federal excise taxes, along with sales taxes imposed by many states, work in the other direction, regressively. Because they are levied without regard to the payer's income, they take a disproportionately larger bite from poor people.
In the Fox interview, Romney took a calculated risk that most voters resent, or can be coaxed to resent, the government's redistributive role, even if millions benefit from it, and it's central to the entire federal system.
Some conservative activists, originally tepid about Romney, cheered his much-debate remarks about the "47 percent."
"The Mitt UNPLUGGED and UNPROGRAMMED by staff & 'experts' won in biz & can win the presidency," said talk show Laura Ingraham via Twitter.
Romney's remarks sharpened his philosophical differences with Obama as the campaign enters its last 50 days.
Obama talks much more than Romney does about society's responsibility to help the needy. His it-takes-a-village approach depicts government as a force for good — not only for the downtrodden, but also for entrepreneurs who rely on public schools, roads, police and firefighters to build their businesses.
"We have some obligations to each other," Obama told CBS's David Letterman on Tuesday. There's "nothing wrong with giving each other a hand."
Romney often portrays government as an over-regulating, over-taxing nuisance that hampers hard-charging "job creators." In the secretly recorded remarks to Florida donors in May, Romney described nearly half of all Americans as people "who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."
He was referring to the roughly 46 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax, although many of them pay sales taxes, payroll taxes, and state, local and excise taxes.
"So our message of lower taxes doesn't connect," Romney said at the May fundraiser. "And so my job is not to worry about those people," he said. "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Democrats, and some Republicans, noted that these Americans include millions of elderly people, military personnel and working-class parents.
They also include a handful of very wealthy people. The IRS reported that, thanks to complex tax breaks, six of the 400 highest-earning families in 2009 owed no federal income taxes.
The week's events seem to be widening the philosophical gap between Obama and Romney.
In truth, both visions of America — as a society that cares for its elderly and downtrodden, and a society fueled by hard-working, self-reliant people trying to get ahead — have deep roots in the nation's history.
But recent events have made the two visions appear more at odds than they truly are.