Mitt Romney, the Leaked 47 Percent Video, and Contemptuous Conservatism

Five takeaways from Mitt Romney's disastrous video

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to reporters on Sept. 17, 2012, about the secretly taped video.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to reporters on Sept. 17, 2012, about the secretly taped video.

In 2000, George W. Bush sought to put a kinder, gentler face on his party’s animating philosophy, which had developed a reputation as being harsh, uncaring, and uninterested in helping society’s most vulnerable. Bush campaigned for the presidency as a “compassionate conservative.” A dozen years later former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who publicly describes himself as “severely conservative,” filled in the details on what that means in a private, $50,000-per-plate Florida fundraiser in May. On a video publicized yesterday by Mother Jones, Romney says that the 47 percent of the country who don’t pay income tax are “victims” owed an “entitlement” from the government. The biggest defense he could be bother to mount last night at a hastily called press conference was that his comments were inelegantly phrased. But he stood behind the broader sentiments. Romney sounded forced when he self-described in February as severely conservative, but his private expression shows he’s a contemptuous conservative.

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That compassion gap is just one takeaway from the damning Romney disclosure. Here are four more:

Competence gap. Four years ago Obama had a similar moment when he was videoed at a fundraiser saying that rural voters “get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion.” That was the last time a competent candidate or campaign should have been caught saying something impolitic in what they fancied to be a private setting. That might explain why the Obama campaign requires donors to check their mobile phones at the door. But by the same token no competent candidate or campaign gives anyone five unscripted minutes of prime just before the candidate accepts his party’s nomination; and no competent campaign has their candidate deliver a speech to a mostly empty football stadium; the list goes on.

But this latest fumble has the virtue of not only insulting half the country—including many Romney voters—but also specifically motivating a Democratic base which heretofore might have opposed Romney but probably did not actively loath him.

Not for nothing is Team Romney becoming known as the gang that can’t shoot straight. “When will the incompetence stop?” conservative columnist David Brooks writes in the New York Times today.

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Wealth gap. Social scientists and political progressive have warned for decades about the problems of growing income disparity in the United States. Romney has now given voice to one problem: The Ayn Rand-ian contempt some members of the wealthy class, who have disproportionately benefited from GOP tax policies, have developed for everyone else. But let’s be clear, working class Americans and others have benefited from Republican and Democratic tax policies in at least one way: 47 percent of them don’t pay income taxes because of things like the Earned Income Tax Credit--policies which, by the way, have been effective at moving working people out of poverty.

I remember when Republicans liked cutting taxes; now they apparently only want to cut taxes for the deserving, while "expanding the tax base," which is conservative code for “raise taxes on the working poor,” or “lucky duckies” as conservatives like to call them.

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Philosophy gap. I’ve written before that one of the biggest problems facing the Republican Party right now is the gap between its mainstream and the mainstream of the country as a whole. The Romney video lays that gap bare, with most people recoiling (including the Romney campaign—you don’t scramble to pull together a presser at 10 p.m. in celebration) while the GOP base cheers. As Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore writes, “Indeed, I don’t know whether the greatest danger to Romney’s campaign right now is the video (and there are more segments from it rolling out today) or the 'Hell yes!' reactions to it from the rawer elements of the conservative chattering classes.”

In this specific instance, while the base is worried about parasitic freeloaders becoming too dependent on government, most Americans take a more charitable view, according to a Pew Research Center poll which National Journal’s Jim Tankersley flags. Specifically, while three in five Republicans disagree with the idea that government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and and a place to sleep, three in five independent voters agree with the notion. That's a big gap, and one the fringe right is anxious for Mitt Romney to march right into.

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Contempt gap. If you wondered whether Mitt Romney thinks voters are stupid, the answer is: yes. Yes he does. In the video he explains why he hasn’t gone into policy details on the campaign trail: “And in a setting like this, a highly intellectual subject—discussion on a whole series of important topics typically doesn't win elections.” No one seems to have explained this to Bill Clinton whose success (both giving State of the Union speeches as president and earlier this month nominating Barack Obama for a second term) stemmed at least in part from his willingness to treat his audience like adults and talk in policy specifics. Romney apparently doesn’t believe the great unwashed can handle details.

And that speaks to a greater contempt he has displayed for the process, one especially exhibited in his campaign’s general mendacity. As the New Democrat Network’s Simon Rosenberg wrote at the end of August:

If your politics revolves around protecting privilege then lying to those without it is no big deal, for at the core of this new politics is a remarkable contempt for the well being of everyday people and the common good.  This contempt for the truth is just an extension of their contempt for us and our interests. Which is why Mitt Romney is in so many ways a perfect candidate for this modern Republican Party, and Paul Ryan its perfect propagandist. They lie because at the end of the day their politics are not about us - it is about them, and their small group of funders and political allies looking to do a leveraged buy-out of the most powerful government in human history.

Contemptuous conservatism indeed.

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