Just hours after Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign attempted an image reboot on Monday, it found itself under attack over a clandestinely recorded video of the candidate describing nearly half the electorate as "dependent on government" because they don't pay federal income taxes, remarks first reported by The Huffington Post and Mother Jones.
President Barack Obama's campaign immediately pounced on Romney's claim about "the 47 percent," with campaign manager Jim Messina saying the former Massachusetts governor had "disdainfully written off half the nation."
And with at least one pundit suggesting that Romney had just lost the election, the candidate himself hastily called an unscheduled press conference. The substance of his awkwardly delivered response was that his "off-the-cuff" remarks at a May fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla. were “not elegantly stated,” but that he stood by them.
However, many were unimpressed with the Republican candidate's unapologetic stance.
"Romney's explanation of his comments may be worse than the comments," said Politico's Roger Simon.
"The sickest thing here is that Romney did not, and won't, apologize or say he was wrong in any way," said liberal columnist Michael Tomasky.
When Romney chose Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his vice-presidential running mate, the press predicted a substantial policy debate would ensue. Instead, the Romney camp has attempted to wage what some see as a genuine class war, explicitly dividing society along specific class lines.
Romney did find some comfort from conservatives after the video was leaked. Erick Erickson, the blogger who created a meme about "the 47 percent" in response to Occupy Wall Street's description of a struggle against "the one percent," suggested that Romney "should double down" because "most Americans agree" with him.
But it was small comfort. Bill Kristol, the conservative pundit whose machinations were crucial in Sarah Palin's 2008 vice-presidential nomination, gently joked that Romney should consider stepping down. He took to the Weekly Standard's blog to denounce Romney's comments as "arrogant and stupid."
It's worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don't pay income taxes are Romney supporters—especially of course seniors (who might well "believe they are entitled to heath care," a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they're not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan. So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.
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.
Indeed: Has there been a presidential race in modern times featuring two candidates who have done so little over their lifetimes for our country, and who have so little substance to say about the future of our country?
Romney's remarks are those rare ones in politics that are even more jarring upon reading the full comment. "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what," Romney says in one clip. "All right -- there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing."
He goes on. "[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives," Romney adds.
If Romney continues to stand by that assertion -- that nearly half of the country is beyond his capacity to redeem -- he risks alienating wide swaths of the electorate: from senior citizens who don't pay federal income taxes because they're exempt (and who largely vote Republican), to the unemployed who don't pay those taxes because they can't.
But Romney's caricature of half the country also misunderstands the ebb and flow of most people's lives. Someone who is jobless today, for instance, could have worked for a company that paid into the unemployment insurance system yesterday, and will do so again once they're employed. Most people who rely on public assistance do so for brief amounts of time when misfortune strikes. And unemployment income is taxable. To paint all of those people as "dependent on government" and therefore glued to Democrats is to call into question their basic worth as people striving to make a good life for themselves, their family and their community. It's a strange posture for a candidate asking for their vote.
It's also a rather extreme stand, and one contravened by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to assert that people are not entitled to, say, "food." According to the United Nations declaration, to which the United States is a signatory, "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control."
According to the Tax Policy Center, in 2011, 46 percent of households paid no federal income taxes. (According to Harry Reid, Mitt Romney has been among them in the past.) About half simply didn't make enough money to pay income tax. The other 38 million households are exempt from paying by a variety of specific tax deductions. Nearly half of that latter group, 44 percent, were the elderly eligible for tax breaks. Another 30.4 percent were exempt due to credits for children and the working poor -- breaks long championed by conservatives, most recently President George W. Bush.
Aside from the income tax issue, there are millions of Americans who use federal aid but don't see themselves as "dependent" on government. The active-duty soldiers and veterans who spent $100 million on military bases over the last year are just one example.
The perception that Romney's remarks showed a man out of touch with reality was worsened by the location of the closed-door fundraiser shown in the video: the private home of private equity manager Marc Leder. According to the New York Post, Leder once hosted a party at the Hamptons where "guests cavorted nude in the pool and performed sex acts, scantily dressed Russians danced on platforms and men twirled lit torches to a booming techno beat." A person with knowledge of Leder's parties confirmed the gist of them to The Huffington Post.
"Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy," opined conservative columnist David Brooks of The New York Times. "It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney."
New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait dubbed Romney a "sneering plutocrat" whose comments "disqualify his claim to the presidency." For TPM's Josh Marshall, it was a "fine distillation of the most rancid version of the libertarian conservative worldview." It was "absolutely devastating," Politico's Ben White concluded.
The mainstream media's most respected arbiters piled on. It was his "darkest hour as a candidate," said the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza.
For NBC's Chuck Todd, Romney has endured simply "a brutal last three weeks."
Clarification: Language has been amended to indicate that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while the basis of much international law, is a non-binding document, and that employees in most states do not directly pay into the unemployment benefits system, employers do.