In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama said people had been so beaten down by the (Bush) economy that they "get bitter and they cling to guns or religion," not realizing that it was being recorded. He took a tremendous amount of flack for that. Now it appears to be Romney's turn. Yesterday it came out that earlier this year he said: "47% of Americans are dependent on government." He added that there was no way he could win those votes and wouldn't try. He also said they "believe they are victims." Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, reacted immediately with: "It is hard to serve as President for all Americans when you've disdainfully written off half the nation."
Romney made his comments openly to a group of wealthy donors, probably most of whom agreed with him. What he didn't realize, of course, was that someone in the audience was recording it. The video is now online.
When it became clear this was going to be the dominant news story today (see NYT, LAT, CSM, The Hill, Reuters, Fox News, and Chicago Tribune, for example). Romney responded by saying his remarks "were not elegantly stated" and he had spoken "off the cuff." He didn't attempt to retract the message, however.
The fact checkers are going to have a field day with this one. Clearly government employees, soldiers, veterans, people on Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, people who have gotten Small Business Administration loans, people who work for government contractors or companies the government bailed out (like banks and GM) are at least somewhat dependent on government. Whether that is 47% of the population is something else. The danger for Romney is that this story reinforces his image of wanting to be the President for the upper half. Gaffes only matter when they reinforce an existing stereotype and this one does. A report that Romney had an affair with a staffer would get zero attention because nobody would believe it was true.
Also, the literal numbers aside, Romney clearly is thinking that 47% of the population are lazy good-for-nothings (English translation: black and brown people) who are sponging off the hard-working 53% of Americans who work for a living. It is doubtful that he regards a white engineer working for a defense contractor as "dependent on government," although that is true, of course. Here is one report that notes Romney is confusing people who pay no federal income tax (for example, elderly, white Republicans who live only on Social Security) with black welfare mothers. Expect more reports today.
Up until now, many people thought that Romney didn't actually believe any of the stuff he was saying. They thought he was just saying it to appease his base. Now many people are going to think he really has disdain for much of the population. It makes his path tougher.
The two slip-ups show how the culture wars underlie everything in American politics. Many Democrats think Republicans are living in the dark ages, sacrificing goats to bring the sun back during an eclipse. Many Republicans think that Democrats are parasites on society who occasionally get out of their hammocks to go kill an unborn baby. It is hard to find common ground on anything when people's world views are so far apart.
Mitt Romney's senior campaign advisor, Ed Gillespie, said the campaign will now get more specific about what Romney plans to do if elected. No details were given.
The real reason Romney has not given much detail about his tax plan so far is that the numbers don't add up. In order to provide a 20% tax cut and reduce the deficit, it would be necessary to gut popular deductions such as mortgage interest and tax benefits such as employer-provided health insurance. If he were to propose these, it would set off a firestorm, so thus far he has been very vague about his plans. It is hard to imagine him becoming more specific now because the problem still exists. Most likely he will invoke supply-side economics and say that tax cuts stimulate the economy so much that there will be massive new revenue the government can use to reduce the deficit. That didn't happen after the Bush tax cuts and is unlikely to happen in the future, but it is not clear what else he can say.