The Conservative Wonk Who Tried to Avert the '47%' Disaster

Ramesh Ponnuru labored in vain to warn the GOP base off this talking point. But it's what they wanted to hear, so it's what Mitt Romney said.

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With Mitt Romney under fire for disparaging the 47 percent of Americans who don't pay income taxes, it's worth noting that what Scott Galupo calls his "reverse class warfare" rhetoric, widely presumed to be an electoral liability, began as a conservative movement talking point, despite dissents from a few figures on the right who insisted that it was dangerously wrongheaded. My colleague Molly Ball has a detailed rundown of the recent history*.

What I want to add to Ball's analysis is the fact that Ramesh Ponnuru, a widely read conservative pundit, did his utmost to warn the right away from this way of thinking. An excerpt from a November 2011 National Review piece:

... Worrying too much about this number will lead conservatives down an intellectual and political dead end. According to the Tax Policy Center, provisions of the tax code that exempt subsistence levels of income from income taxes -- the standard deduction, personal exemption, and dependent exemption -- are the reason for about half of the tax filers who owe no income tax. Another large group of filers pays no income tax because its members are elderly and benefit from such features of the code as the non-taxation of some Social Security benefits. The tax credit for children and the earned-income tax credit, an effort to boost the pay of low-income workers, wipe out income-tax liability for other taxpayers. Those credits are "refundable," meaning that beneficiaries can get money on top of paying no income tax. Other provisions of the code account for the rest of the 47 percent: education credits, the non-taxation of welfare payments, itemized deductions, and so on.
What Romney would also know, if he read Ponnuru's piece, is that his own political calculation is surely wrong. It's irrational for Romney to conclude that he cannot win the votes of anyone who doesn't pay income tax, as Ponnuru persuasively argued. He cited evidence including the fact that "the Tax Foundation has calculated the percentage of filers in each state who pay income tax. The ten states with the highest number of non-payers are a strongly Republican bunch: Eight of them went for John McCain in 2008, and nine of them have Republican governors."

It's possible that Romney does knows this, and was just telling his donors what they want to hear.

As Peter Suderman put it:

Does Mitt Romney actually believe all this? I have no idea, but you can be sure he thinks the gathered GOP rainmakers do. When he told Mormon bishops that he was going to run for Senate in Massachusetts as a pro-choice candidate, he did so in a presentation based on polling data. At the fundraiser in question, Romney explained that he had crafted his anti-Obama message after copious focus group research. This is a guy who has basically made a living out of figuring out what people want to hear and telling them exactly that. Which means that this probably tells us at least as much about the donors as it does about Romney. 

And what does it tell us about Romney? That he thinks he can talk differently to different groups of people without consequence, and that he's happy to play to the GOP's sense of self-entitlement.
In fact, this "47 percent" incident reflects a larger pattern in Campaign 2012. The base of the conservative movement develops a message that plays well internally, and inexplicably thinks it'll be persuasive to the general electorate if only it is trumpeted widely; Mitt Romney slavishly conducts himself as the base wishes; and then the talking points turn out to be as unpopular with swing voters as you'd expect. That's how it's gone on foreign policy; now that Romney has been caught making the verbal equivalent of a 53 percent Tumblr entry, that's how it's going on domestic policy too. Compare the rigor of Ponnuru's logic and analysis to Erickson's work on this subject; Ponnuru wins easily, but Erickson is more adept at selling the base a narrative that resonates emotionally and accords with their preconceptions. It's easy to do when rigor is an afterthought.

Several dissident conservatives still try to marshal evidence and arguments against the most problematic narratives the base adopts. They've been losing influence for awhile now -- and the Republican Party is weaker as a result. As for Ponnuru, his latest is an eerily prescient column that was written just prior to this kerfuffle, but nevertheless diagnoses the shortcomings in the GOP approach.

To understand the terrible position Romney has put himself in from another angle, see John O'Sullivan, who took to National Review after today's news to offer the GOP nominee this advice:
If Romney responds to the Mother Jones story by backing off from his basic argument that far too many Americans are dependent upon the government and that this dependency skews their votes, he will weaken his campaign enormously. This audio revelation does not destroy his chance of winning in November, as over-excitable commentators have argued. There are inaccuracies in it, as Patrick Brennan points out, but the basic argument is reasonable. (If over-deterministic -- many people receiving welfare and other forms of government aid dislike their situation and would much prefer to be self-reliant.) But Romney cannot make that and other arguments if he begins by withdrawing his remarks or, worse, by apologizing for them. An apology, moreover, would confirm the still-latent suspicion that he is unduly nervous and a flip-flopper.

What Romney should do is call a press conference, play the tape, and then announce that he stands by what he said. In the course of affirming his broad argument, he can correct the minor inaccuracies easily enough.
When your allies sum up the latest by saying that your argument was inaccurate in parts, overdetermined in others, but that you're in a position where you must stick by it, it's been a very bad day. For an excellent discussion of the relevant policy questions involved, see this post by Reihan Salam, whose advice is somewhat different -- without mentioning Romney in particular, he suggests that conservative politicians should be willing to champion sound public policy.

That does seem like a better long-term strategy than the alternatives.

*In October of 2011, conservative blogger Erick Erickson published a post at Red State declaring, "I am the 53 percent." Comparing himself to Occupy Wall Street protesters, he explained that as someone who pays income tax, "I'm one of the 53% -- the 53% of Americans subsidizing these people so they can go hang out on Wall Street to complain." He was hardly alone in feeling that way. Go peruse the Tumblr dedicated to people proudly asserting that they too are 53 percenters. By the end of November, Ramesh Ponnuru was observing in National Review, "That 47 percent of all tax filers have no income-tax liability is now one of the most widely known statistics on the right."

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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