Mitt Romney speaks to reporters about the secretly taped video from one… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's secretly recorded comments about Americans who don't pay income taxes and Palestinians who don't want peace may finally convince Republicans that he's as conservative as he claims to be. Although blunter than usual, his remarks at a private fundraiser in May reinforce themes that Romney has been sounding in the campaign about President Obama promoting dependency on government benefits and taking the wrong approach to the Middle East. Unfortunately, they also combine facts and errant assumptions in a wrongheaded ideology.
Romney's comments, which were made public by the liberal magazine Mother Jones, fit into a long history of candidates making revealingly impolitic comments at off-the-record events. Four years ago, Obama told donors in San Francisco that it wasn't surprising that people in fading small towns "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment." That remark may have played well in the room, but it helped establish what has become a lingering perception in some quarters that Obama is elitist.
At the $50,000-a-head May 17 fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., Romney made two points that have caught the attention of partisans on both sides. The first is that the 47% of Americans who pay no income taxes are people who are "dependent upon government … who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it." The second is that "the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish."
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It's a startling truth that roughly half of the people in America don't pay income taxes. But most of the people in that group aren't welfare queens — they're seniors, teenagers and the working poor, all of whom Congress has deliberately favored in the tax code. The tax credit for the working poor has been particularly effective in helping people climb out of poverty. And while it's not unreasonable to propose that everyone pay at least some tax on incomes, it's worth remembering that the vast majority of Americans pay federal taxes in one form or another, such as gasoline or Social Security taxes.
There's a good debate to be had on how to make safety net programs more efficient. But Romney seems to blame the surge in beneficiaries on a culture of entitlement rather than the sharp economic downturn and high unemployment (along with a growing number of baby boomers retiring). Most of the working-age, able-bodied people rescued by federal and state safety net programs rebound economically, and do so in a relatively short period of time.
As for Romney's comments on the Middle East, the peace process has frustrated many an occupant of the Oval Office, but it's depressingly defeatist for a candidate to give up on one of his most important foreign policy responsibilities even before he's elected. (Romney suggests in the video that the best the U.S. could do would be to "kick the ball down the field.") Nor is it fair to put all the blame for the crisis on the Palestinians or to insist that Israel has a monopoly on truth or justice. The newly adopted Republican Party platform implicitly acknowledges this by calling for a two-state solution, as the party has long advocated.
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The Boca Raton video has helped Romney in some circles by shoring up his conservative bona fides. But it also showed him to be strangely ignorant about who pays income taxes and receives federal benefits, and dishearteningly willing to punt on Middle East peace.