WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's caught-on-camera assessment that 47 percent of people who don't pay federal income tax are government moochers with no interest in his campaign has left a split within the Republican Party.
In one camp stand the governor's political defenders, including former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, who argue that he was playing the role of political pundit when he offered his take on the state of the presidential race last May. In another camp stand a group of conservatives who have argued, despite evidence to the contrary, that there is a freeloader problem in the country and that Romney was preaching the truth in his big-donor meeting. And in the minority are those Republicans -- led by The New York Times' David Brooks -- who argue that Romney got it wrong on both the policy and the politics.
Somewhere in between those three stands Grover Norquist. The longtime anti-tax crusader told The Huffington Post that he believed Romney "mixed up" his numbers and fumbled an otherwise opportune moment. He wishes that the Republican nominee "had sort of the Jack Kemp/Arthur Brooks immediate response" to the question -- meaning he wishes that Romney had hammered away at the dangers of government dependency -- instead of getting bogged down in a tax fairness debate.
But he didn't regard the response as a "big" problem. In fact, he thought the Romney camp could turn it into a plus over the next month.
"I went up to the campaign and I said, What’s your take on this? And I got back the perfect answer: We’re working to provide opportunity while the other team is trying to teach dependence and we win that fight in America," said Norquist. "If this was Bulgaria in 1957, I’m not sure we’d win the debate. In the United States, we win that debate."
"In the original comment, which first off was not written down, was off the top of his head, in response to God knows what, [while] the cameras are going," he said what he said, Norquist added. "We have a month now to walk through it. And the longer they stay on that issue, [the better]. That is not a winning issue for Obama."
Norquist's take on the controversial comments could have an impact on how the rest of the Republican Party approaches the fallout. The prominent activist has a legion of followers, both in Congress and outside of it. And on a strictly philosophical level, he should find Romney's statement objectionable. After all, the underlying point made by the governor was that some of the 47 percent of those not paying federal income taxes should be handed some of that burden -- an expansion of tax liability that is anathema to Norquist's worldview, which holds that taxes should be as low as possible.
"I think it’s a mistake to look at one person paying more than somebody else and saying the problem here is this other guy," Norquist said on the substance of Romney's remarks. "Rather, we want to reduce taxes on everybody.
"So the thought that there are people who don’t pay federal income taxes does not mean they are not sensitive to tax increases or taxes in general. One, because of lifetime changes over life, but also because people pay property taxes, young people see sales taxes and property taxes and state taxes and local taxes."
Romney, in a Tuesday afternoon interview on Fox News, addressed that point. His tax plan remains centered on a 20 percent rate reduction across the board. But he still hasn't specified the loopholes and deductions he will eliminate to pay for it. As for those currently not paying federal income tax, he only wants them to do so if they have higher-paying jobs.
"First of all, of course you're right, there are number of retirees, members of military, and so forth, who aren't paying taxes," he said. "And that's as it should be. But I do believe that we should have enough jobs and enough take-home pay such that people have the privilege of higher income that allows them to be paying taxes. i think people would like to be paying taxes."
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"That's not the way I view the world. As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in. Too many people today who want to work are being forced into public assistance for lack of jobs," Scott said in an email to <a href="http://thehill.com/blogs/ballot-box/senate-races/250157-sen-scott-brown-denounces-romney-comments" target="_hplink">The Hill</a>.
"He was obviously inarticulate in making this point," Ryan <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/18/paul-ryan-mitt-romney-video_n_1895403.html" target="_hplink">said</a> during an interview with a Nevada television station.
"This could be the opportunity for Romney, and for that campaign, to finally take the gloves off and take the fear off and just start explaining conservatism, start explaining liberty to people and what it means," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/18/rush-limbaugh-mitt-romney_n_1893882.html" target="_hplink">Limbaugh said</a> Tuesday. "And explain that they don't need to be in that 47 percent. There's no reason for them, for everybody to be -- essentially having given up on their future in this country. There's no reason for it. This is, to me, such an opportunity to espouse conservatism."
"Mitt Romney probably could have better explained himself. I think he was a little clumsy in doing this," <a href="http://thehill.com/video/house/249975-rep-allen-west-romney-a-little-clumsy-with-47-percent-comment" target="_hplink">West said</a> on Fox News.
"Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people. I'd put federal disability payments and unemployment insurance in this category. But, as a description of America today, Romney's comment is a country-club fantasy. It's what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney," <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/18/opinion/brooks-thurston-howell-romney.html?ref=davidbrooks" target="_hplink">Brooks wrote</a>. "He's running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?"
"It remains important for the country that Romney wins in November (unless he chooses to step down and we get the Ryan-Rubio ticket we deserve!). But that shouldn't blind us to the fact that Romney's comments, like those of Obama four years ago, are stupid and arrogant," <a href="http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/note-romney-s-arrogant-and-stupid-remarks_652548.html" target="_hplink">Kristol wrote</a>.
"He has to not apologize, because we've seen enough apologizing already, and he cannot apologize," <a href="http://thehill.com/video/campaign/249993-trump-romney-cannot-apologize-for-inartful-comments-at-fundraiser" target="_hplink">Trump said</a> on NBC News. "What he said is probably what he means." Trump also said that Romney's words were "inartfully stated."
"The Romney campaign should double down on what he said. They should own it. The trouble for the left and media (but I repeat myself) is that most Americans agree with Mitt Romney. Most Americans consider themselves part of the 53% and it is not a winning proposition for Barack Obama to convince Americans they are less than they think they are when most Americans already recognize he has made them less than they were," <a href="http://www.redstate.com/2012/09/17/treat-the-press-as-enemy-collaborators/" target="_hplink">Erickson wrote</a> in a blog post on RedState.com.
"[Romney] believes that every American has got to have skin in the game...he doesn't want what the president wants," <a href="http://www.politico.com/blogs/burns-haberman/2012/09/christie-romney-wants-to-empower-people-135893.html" target="_hplink">Christie said</a> on Fox News, adding that Romney wants to "empower individuals...and that's what he's really talking about."
"The idea that you're declaring, 'Well, the race is over. Mitt Romney doesn't care about people,'" <a href="http://www.mediaite.com/tv/laura-ingraham-fired-up-over-romneys-47-tape-its-ridiculous-this-is-getting-airtime/" target="_hplink">Ingraham said </a>on Fox News. "Meanwhile, you have a president whose policies have undermined the 47 percent. ... I'm very pumped up about this. I think it's ridiculous that people are seizing on it and that we're even giving all that much airtime to it, frankly."
"I disagree with Governor Romney's insinuation that 47% of Americans believe they are victims who must depend on the government for their care. I know that the vast majority of those who rely on government are not in that situation because they want to be. People today are struggling because the government has failed to keep America competitive, failed to support job creators, and failed to get our economy back on track," <a href="http://www.lindaforsenate2012.com/news/press-releases/2012/09/18/linda-mcmahon-response-to-mitt-romneys-remarks/" target="_hplink">McMahon said</a> in a statement.
"To read many of the reactions on Twitter, you'd think Mother Jones had just found video of Mitt Romney strangling a hooker with her own pantyhose," <a href="http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/322394/quick-thoughts-freeloaderdammerung-jonah-goldberg" target="_hplink">Goldberg wrote</a>. "Indeed, many people understand what Romney is getting at here, even if he's saying it badly."