The Deep GOP Roots of Romney's 47% Remarks

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Far from a gaffe, his remarks reflected both a long-standing belief among conservatives that the nation faces a "tipping point."

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Reuters

Mitt Romney's decision to reaffirm rather than renounce his controversial taped comments about dependency underscores the extent to which Republicans want to frame the presidential election as a contest between "makers and takers" -- as well as the risk that construct could pose to a GOP coalition that has grown increasingly dependent on older voters who rely on government aid.

Romney, in his initial comments at a private May fundraiser that were released by Mother Jones magazine, conflated the concern among conservatives about two distinct trends: The fact that the share of Americans who live in households that receive some government benefit is approaching 50 percent, according to the Census Bureau, even as the share of households that pay federal income taxes is falling toward 50 percent or slightly below, depending on the estimate.

Far from a gaffe, Romney's remarks reflected both a long-standing belief among conservatives that the nation faces a "tipping point" in which growing dependency will create an insurmountable electoral majority for big government -- and Democratic candidates. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney's running mate, has delivered similar arguments for years. "We risk hitting [a] tipping point in our society where we have more takers than makers," he said recently. "President Obama's policies are feverishly putting more people into the column of being takers than makers ... being more dependent."

The conservative Heritage Foundation, in the latest edition of its Index of Dependence on Government likewise concluded earlier this year: "Perhaps the greatest danger is that the swelling ranks of Americans who enjoy government services and benefits for which they pay few or no taxes will lead to a spreading sense of entitlement that is simply incompatible with self-government."

Throughout the summer, the Romney campaign has heavily relied on these arguments to fashion its case against Obama. In particular, Romney has used the "takers versus makers" framing to rebut the relentless Democratic accusation that he favors the rich over the middle class: In essence, he has responded by arguing that Obama favors the poor over the middle class by promoting programs that encourage dependency and demand redistribution.

The sentiments Romney expressed at the fundraiser made more explicit arguments that are implicit in his campaign ads this summer on welfare and Medicare (in which a narrator warns, over pictures of worried older whites, that Obama, to finance his health-care reform, has diverted funds from the program to an entitlement that's "not for you"). Those claims reached a crescendo at the Republican convention, where a succession of speakers sought to position the GOP as defending an economically squeezed middle class against a Democratic coalition determined to transfer income to "undeserving" claimants, from illegal immigrants to public employees.

That language pointedly echoed arguments from the Ronald Reagan era, when Republican claims that Democrats supported a redistribution of income from the hard-pressed middle class to the idle poor helped the GOP make enormous inroads among whites, particularly those in the working class. Those disputes between the parties receded as Bill Clinton promoted welfare reform and tough measures against crime, but hard times have brought them back to the surface in recent years.

"I told my friends I felt I was at the 1980 or 1984 Republican convention," said Democratic consultant Donna Brazile after attending the GOP gathering. "They are basically saying, 'We are the ones who are working, and the other side is [for] those who are not working and are draining resources from us.' "

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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