Quite a few commentators have compared Mitt Romney’s remarks to a private fundraiser—where he accused Americans who don’t pay income tax of not “taking responsibility for their lives”—to then-Senator Barack Obama’s comments on voters who “cling to their guns and religion.” The argument is straightforward—if Obama can escape damage for his comments, then Romney can make it through his.
But the only thing these statements have in common is the fact that they were made to private audiences. Outside of that, there are crucial differences. Obama made his remarks before the primaries were over, before the public was familiar with him, and before the general election kicked into gear. What’s more, his eventual opponent—John McCain—saw no reason to capitalize on the remarks. After a brief flare, things calmed down and Obama escaped unscathed.
There’s one other thing that kept Obama’s remarks from blowing up in his face. Here's the full text of his comment:
But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Was this inartful and condescending? Absolutely. Even still, it came from a place of compassion—Obama understands why white rural voters are arrayed against him, and sympathizes with their plight. Indeed, he said this as part of a pitch for why his supporters should attempt to engage with these voters, even if they won’t vote for him:
Um, now these are in some communities, you know. I think what you’ll find is, is that people of every background – there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you’ll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I’d be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you’re doing what you’re doing.
Contrast this to Romney’s remarks:
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax. […]
[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
At best, this is dismissive. If you’re feeling less charitable, it’s an expression of contempt and disdain for poor and working-class Americans. It lacks empathy for those who struggle with the burden of poverty, and it betrays a blindness to the realities of life for ordinary people. A waitress with two kids is consumed with responsibility; she doesn’t have the wealth or security to make mistakes.
I’m not sure that either statement reflects the beliefs of the candidates, but they certainly reflect the beliefs of donors on both sides. In 2008, Democratic donors wanted to know how they could reach out to communities that oppose them. In 2012, Republican donors want to sneer at the less fortunate. Thankfully, they have a nominee who will indulge the impulse.