There’s an old adage that a gaffe is when someone in Washington accidentally tells the truth. In the case of Mitt Romney’s statement that emerged earlier this week that his “job is not to worry about” people who don’t pay income taxes, Romney accidentally revealed what is actually a deep political problem for the Republican ticket’s messaging.
Ezra Klein’s Wonk Blog has an excellent post explaining that Romney’s comment – as impolitic as its wording may be – reveals a deeper truth about the candidate’s policies. Klein points to a series of comments by prominent Republicans outlining the idea that America is creating a ‘taker’ class. Klein’s argument also points to a much deeper political problem that the comment demonstrates.
The immediate political problems with the remark are clear. The Obama campaign has already pounced on the remark – immediately circulating Romney’s gaffe juxtaposed cleverly against a quote from Obama outlining his commitment to represent all Americans. Although politically advantageous, the Obama campaign’s interpretation of the remark, however, isn’t exactly honest. Romney didn’t mean to imply that he would ignore the needs of non-federal-income-tax-paying Americans.
A more honest interpretation of the comment, however, still points to a serious political problem for Romney.
The problem is this. Romney’s central economic argument is that less government spending and lower tax rates will lead to economic growth. As his comment from today reminds us, however, reductions in federal payroll taxes will directly affect only the fifty-three percent of Americans who pay those taxes. This is a little simplistic (there are certainly other taxes Romney can cut), but Romney’s underlying commitment to help job-creators to create jobs means his policies will naturally be targeted immediately towards people with money. That isn’t to say Romney’s policies have nothing to offer those who don’t pay payroll taxes; in his worldview, tax cuts will stimulate economic growth that will help everyone in the long run.
What today’s comments make painfully obvious, however, is that Romney’s policies will have a more immediate and direct effect on Americans who are already wealthy. President Obama’s economic policies, which generally incorporate more spending, have more direct benefits to offer to the forty-seven percent of people who don’t have federal income taxes to have cut. He can point to the direct advantages individual states gain from the subsidies and government spending he supports (think the Detroit bailout or wind tax credit). Again, whose policies will be better for the middle class in the long run is a question far beyond this post. But there’s a fundamental political problem here for Romney.
It’s a recurring problem for Republicans running for federal office. This election cycle, however, it’s exacerbated by a couple of facts.
First, two normally Republican policy areas, foreign policy and social issues, have been claimed by Democrats this cycle. President Obama consistently polls better than Romney on foreign policy and Democrats have aggressively tried to convert Romney’s conservative positions on abortion and reproductive medicine into an advantage with women voters. Unless he wishes to contest either issue – which his campaign’s actions suggest he does not – Romney is left with little else to talk about other than the economy. That, coupled with the largely transactional mood of voters around the country, mean that Romney needs to make a much more complicated case about the economy to some voters than Barack Obama does.
All of this is not to say the Romney campaign can’t a make a persuasive case for its economic policies. It can. Until the week after the Democrats’ convention, he consistently led Obama in polls about who voters trusted most to repair the economy. What the gaffe today goes to show is that Romney has to make a longer and more complicated argument than does President Obama if he wants to convince undecided voters in that bottom forty-seven percent.
Whether Romney can overcome this fundamental challenge may well determine whether he wins or loses this election.
And if he’s going to make that argument persuasively, he’s going to have to avoid too many more gaffes like this one.