Far from a gaffe, his remarks reflected both a long-standing belief among conservatives that the nation faces a "tipping point."
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."
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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.' "
GOP pollster Whit Ayres says that focus groups still find a powerful response to the basic argument Romney delivered in his taped comments. "Much of what he was saying in the tape is stuff we hear in focus groups all the time -- where people are complaining there are too many people who are not carrying their own weight and too many people living off the sweat of others," Ayres said. "The fundamental message that we have too many people taking and not enough people giving is very consistent with a majority of voters in this country."
Democrats remain dubious those arguments will cut as deeply as they did during the 1980s. "This feels like a black-and-white movie in a color age," said Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN, a Democratic advocacy group. "The cards they are playing are from a deck that is 25 years old. It is going to work for certain segments of the aging white population. But it just reinforces President Obama's framing of this choice as a choice between forward and backward."
Ironically, the biggest risk in Romney's remarks will be how older white voters receive them. Census figures show that the share of households receiving either Social Security or Medicare is larger than the share receiving all means-tested government benefits combined. Seniors also represent an important component of the group that does not pay income taxes. And while Census data show that the share of Hispanics and African-Americans living in households that receive a means-tested government benefit (56 percent and 52 percent respectively) is much larger than the share of whites (22 percent), roughly four-fifths of the senior population drawing on Social Security and Medicare is white.
Republicans are now extremely dependent on those older white voters: The party won about three-fifths of white seniors in both the 2008 presidential and 2010 House elections, according to exit polls. In that sense, Romney's claim that voters receiving government benefits are beyond his reach was questionable not only as political strategy, but even as political analysis.
These older whites have moved toward a hardening opposition to transfer payments for the poor. In a Pew Research Center survey last year, a significant plurality of them agreed that "poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return."
Polls also show them intensely opposed to Obama's health reform plan: In a recent United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, less than one-third of them said they believed the initiative would benefit them personally. But surveys show they also fiercely oppose cutbacks in entitlement programs for the elderly -- which they tend to view "as social insurance ... that they've earned," as Ayres said.
Many forces are pushing white seniors away from Obama. But if a meaningful number of them interpret Romney's remarks as equating them with the "dependent" poor, it could widen the opening for Democrats created by senior skepticism of the GOP ticket's proposal to convert Medicare into a premium-support or voucher system.
Like other Republicans, Ayres says he believes Romney is unlikely to abandon the basic arguments about dependency he delivered in the May fundraiser. But, Ayres added, Romney needs to sharpen his language to reassure seniors that he is exempting them from his indictment. Given his challenges elsewhere in the electorate, the last thing Romney can afford is any erosion among the white seniors who have provided Republican presidential candidates a larger share of their vote in each of the past five elections.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed.