09/18/2012 10:27 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

The Audacity of Mitt Romney

One of the more striking developments of recent years has been the assertion by a growing chorus of Republicans that many Americans are under taxed. This contradicts three decades worth of work positioning the GOP as the anti-tax party, which helped Republicans brand themselves as populists looking out for the interests of ordinary Americans. The new rhetoric in favor of taxing the less well off is, however, consistent with a deeper conviction in the party - that the well-to-do are deserving of whatever largesse or good fortune that comes their way, while the rabble are to be treated with scorn and contempt. That Mitt Romney is the ultimate embodiment of that contempt was crystal clear even before the 47% tape emerged yesterday.

A potent mix of self-righteousness and self-pity were on vivid display in Romney's remarks. We the chosen, Romney essentially told his base of super wealthy supporters, are under siege from the grimy, grasping hordes. My election, Romney was promising, will liberate "us" from those lowlifes.

A rare glimpse of an authentic Romney moment aside, however, there are, of course, fundamental problems with his plaint. First, as Ezra Klein pointed out this morning, the significant dip in the number of Americans paying federal income taxes is substantially attributable to the Bush tax cuts. These, in turn, were necessary to sell the public on the real goal of the cuts - to deliver extraordinary savings to the wealthiest Americans. So, while tens of millions of Americans got some break on their taxes, the people that W. once "jokingly" referred to as his "base" were the real beneficiaries.

A second reason that there has been a significant dip in the number of Americans paying no federal income tax is the recession, which has thrown millions into unemployment and underemployment. As an aside, it's a staple of conservative arguments that inequality isn't as bad as liberals make it out to be because less well off Americans receive all sorts of non-monetary benefits, like food stamps and government-provided health care. But of course, those are precisely the programs the GOP has declared war on, no one more aggressively than Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, who is concerned that the social safety net is becoming hammock, so comfortable that poor Americans want to keep living in poverty. And Romney's taped comments make clear that he himself loathes those kinds of programs and doesn't regard it as his responsibility to concern himself with the many millions of women, children and families receiving such benefits.

The aging of the population - seniors on social security and Medicare account for a significant portion of those not paying federal income taxes - is another factor explaining the rise in the number of people not paying federal income tax. And of course, Romney and Ryan have insisted that, the obvious intent and consequences of their plans notwithstanding, they are the true defenders of seniors in America.

Total it all up, Klein argues, and 83% of Americans not paying federal income taxes are paying other federal taxes, including payroll taxes (and at a much higher rate relative to income than are Mitt's super wealthy friends) or are elderly and have already paid a lifetime's worth of federal income taxes.

So, even if we accepted Mitt's terminology - that those who don't pay federal income tax or receive some form of government-funded assistance are entitled moochers - he's got the data completely wrong. Of course, the problem is much worse than Romney spouting his usual fact-challenged nonsense. We've just lived through a devastating financial crisis that left tens of millions of people unemployed, or unable to afford their homes or to provide for their families, and the entities most responsible for that devastation walked away scot-free while receiving hundreds of billions or trillions (depending on how you count) in taxpayer funded largesse. In other words, there's a good chance that many of the people in the room that night were the worst kind of freeloaders - and the most self-entitled and convinced of their own victimhood to boot.

And Mitt Romney's response to all of this - that half of America is a bunch of lazy freeloaders.

One other point to add: as David Brooks acknowledged in an especially harsh attack on Romney in the Times today, large numbers of Republican supporters outside the precincts of the super-wealthy bailout babies are white men who, in one way or another, are receiving government "welfare" of one sort or another while decrying the very thing they say they detest (remember "keep your government hands off my Medicare?").

In sum, Romney's caught-on-tape remarks reflect all of the worst pathologies of hypocrisy and psychological projection that have so come to define the contemporary GOP. Sell a huge tax cut for the super wealthy by small reductions in the federal incomes taxes on many Americans. Stand idly by while high finance brings the economy to its knees. And then blame less well-off Americans for the predicament we're in, all the while calling them moochers and freeloaders. This is pretty audacious stuff. But it's one hammock Romney and Ryan are going to have hard time rolling themselves out of.