Mitt Romney Should Seize His Barry Goldwater Moment

Own the 47 percent, Mitt, own it.

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Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign stop in Orange City, Iowa, Friday, Sept. 7, 2012.

Alas, poor Mitt. Still bedeviled by what he said about 47 percent of Americans. Still tying himself up in knots trying to make it go away.

Well, here's some unsolicited advice: If Mitt Romney really wants to grab some post-election relevancy in the Republican Party he should go in exactly the opposite direction. Because while many of us find his formulation nothing short of offensive (full disclosure: I made ads for the president's re-election campaign) perhaps for the first time in his life, it puts Romney somewhere that he has long yearned to be: squarely in the middle of the Republican right.

Let me explain. Let's say you're a person who has a job but doesn't have health insurance. The conservative response is something like this: Whatever assortment of choices you've made in your life has gotten you to this point. You didn't have to take a job that doesn't provide health insurance, but you did. Getting a job that offers the benefits you want is an incentive to work harder. So get to work.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

There are some perfectly valid underlying assumptions to that point of view. We all should be realistic about the choices we make, for example, and be prepared to take responsibility for their consequences. We ought to encourage hard work. And there's a simple appeal to the idea that the harder you work the better benefits you receive.

Some of the assumptions, however, require greater scrutiny. Is it correct to assume, for example, that the circumstances of your life are an accurate measure of the choices you've made and how hard you've worked?  In some cases, that's presumably the case, but if it's true across the board, then the following conclusion is inescapable: Those people on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum are there because they've made bad choices and haven't worked hard enough.

That's an undeniable implication of Romney's 47 percent remark. The "47 percent who are with" the president are the ones who are "dependent on the government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them." In other words, these are the low achievers, the one's who have given up and decided that its up to the rest of us, acting through the agency of government, to take care of them.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

All of this may offend your sensibilities (as it does mine) but it's a foundational justification of small government conservatism. It was Ronald Reagan's argument about welfare. It lay at the heart of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. Rand Paul says it, basically, every day. You can find it in every nook and cranny of Paul Ryan's budget and it animates just about every stand on spending that Eric Cantor makes.

So if Romney was merely expressing something that so many conservatives have said before, and that so many believe today, one can reasonably ask: Where would Romney be today had he just owned up to what he said?

Not president. The hard-edged Republicanism captured by the 47 percent remark usually needs a little obfuscation to make the ugliness go down easy. Romney didn't bother with that. And in its unadulterated form, the idea that laziness and bad decisions are the reason people don't do well in our free market economy is simply out of step with the real world in which most of us live.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

There are all sorts of reasons we encounter hard times, and many of those reasons are beyond our control. An industry downsizes. A loved one falls ill. A class of citizens has more limited access to societal goods than the rest of us. And facing hurdles like those, it may be that no matter how hard we work, we may not be able to get ahead. It's not our fault. But it's true.

Typically we look first to private industry or even charity to pick up the slack. But when they prove inadequate to the task, reasonable people may turn to government instead. That, no matter how much conservatives object to it, is part of what government is here to do. It's how Social Security came into being. And Medicare. And student loans. And, yes, Obamacare. Not to create a crutch for the undeserving, but to enable more of us to realize our full potential free from inhibitors which have nothing to do with our attitudes, abilities, or merits.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

So no, Romney wouldn't be president today. But now, as he grapples for some kind of post-election relevancy, a little spine might go a long way.  Imagine if Romney had had an unexpectedly Goldwater-ian moment this weekend, putting his principles ahead of his popularity and owning up to his 47 percent beliefs. He could have used a robust defense of his remarks to launch into an aggressively antigovernment monologue, embracing the sequester, etc. That would be deeply troubling to people like me, but he's never going to win my vote. Tea Party faces, on the other hand, would have lit up across the nation. "Where was this guy on the campaign trail?" they would have asked. Suddenly there's a CPAC invitation in the mail, appearances with Hannity, Levin, and Limbaugh ... a star is born. Finally.

Ah well. What could have been...

Because here's the thing: For all the damage it did him in the campaign, and for all his ongoing efforts to undo it, Romney's 47 percent remark is about the most authentically conservative thing he's ever said.

  • Read Robert Schlesinger: Balance, Paul Ryan’s Budget, and Why the GOP Thinks Voters Are Dumb
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