There's Just No Stopping Romney

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Of course it was dumb, dumb, dumb for Romney to say what he said anywhere within reach of a recording device. It stuns me that politicians running for president still need to be told that nothing is off the record. But in this case it's not just the tactical ineptitude, it's the gross misjudgment on the point of substance.

Romney's view is apparently that citizens are desiccated calculating machines. He thinks they work out the dollar net benefit to them of each party's platform and vote accordingly. The 47 percent who pay no income taxes can expect to be better off under a high-spending administration. You don't need to know anything else because there's no hope of reaching moochers like that. But it's obvious people don't vote this way.

Does Romney know the first thing about his own supporters? A large proportion of them -- maybe not 47 percent, but I'd guess not much less -- are in the no-income-tax group, either because they're retired or are working on low incomes. Those people might be right or wrong to vote Republican, but it's clear they're taking a wider view of their interests, their children's interests and the country's interests than Romney gives them credit for.

Romney thinks voters are as blinkered as Thomas Frank (What's the Matter with Kansas?) says they ought to be. Frank thinks they're too stupid to do the sums. Romney thinks they're too selfish not to.

Let's hope he's wrong, because if he's right the results would be bad -- and not just for the Republican Party. Never mind whether people currently pay or don't pay income tax: Anybody who's retired or coming up to retirement would demand enormous deficit-financed increases in Social Security, Medicare, and assorted public services, calculating that the fiscal anvil would drop on the heads of the next generation. Not their problem. All but 2 percent of voters would be delighted by Obama's proposal to pay for extra public spending by taxing the rich and nobody else, and in fact most voters would want the deal sweetened a lot further -- up to the point at which the rich start emigrating and the arrangement stops delivering a net fiscal benefit to at least 51 percent. But voters don't look at it like that. They aren't solipsistic bean-counters. They think of themselves as responsible self-governing citizens. That's what most of them are, including the ones who pay no income tax.

Will it hurt him? I think it will -- unless people who paid income taxes before retiring, or who have children currently paying taxes, or who one day expect to pay taxes all exempt themselves from his 47 percent. I think it will hurt him in the same way Obama's remark about people clinging to guns and religion hurt him in 2008 and still does. (I spend a lot of time in West Virginia, where that comment won't ever be forgotten.) "Clinging" was another case of a politician underestimating and insulting voters whose support he wanted and could have expected to gain. You bet, politically incorrect -- but more important, simply wrong.

Call me naive, but wouldn't it be great if politicians could develop a little respect for the people they are asking to lead?

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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