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."