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Romney Comments on the Nation of Moochers Has Long Conservative Pedigree

Trying to recover his footing after a terrible couple of days, Mitt Romney appears to want to shift his comments on the 47% of Americans who “believe that they are victims” and think they’re entitled to health care and food into a strength. In a USA Today op-ed, Romney tries to pivot into the more traditional conservative conception of the “makers v. takers” argument:

Under President Obama, we have a stagnant economy that fosters government dependency. My policies will create a growing economy that fosters upward mobility.

Government has a role to play here. Right now, our nation’s citizens do need help from government. But it is a very different kind of help than what President Obama wants to provide.

My experience has taught me that government works best when it creates the space for individuals and families to pursue success and achieve great things. Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in creating sustained prosperity and lifting people out of poverty. It is why our economy rose to rival those of the world’s leading powers — and has long since surpassed them all.

The dreamers and the entrepreneurs, not government, built this economy, and they can once again make it strong.

John McCormack at the Weekly Standard claims that Romney is just making a play at being a conservative, and therefore he gets the language wrong and comes off like a caricature. “The moral case for conservative economics is that our policies are going to help everybody, including the poor,” added Charles Krauthammer. And these remarks from Romney return back to that equilibrium.

But it lets Romney and the conservative movement off far too easy to dismiss the initial remarks as “inartful” or “inelegant” or not in the conservative tradition. Because they are. You can take it back 40 years if you want, to take the example of a Richard Nixon ad from 1972:

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This comes from the man who submitted legislation for a guaranteed basic income!

This really isn’t too hard. The idea that has animated the conservative politics of envy starts from the perspective that somebody else is getting all that money you give to the government. Surely you’re not getting it. And those lucky duckies (precisely what the Wall Street Journal called them in 2002) live high off your toil and labor, buying T-bone steaks with their food stamps, taking their welfare check to the local bar, basically having the life of Riley while you have to eke out a meager existence as a working stiff. This is where racial politics serve to blunt the intensity of class politics. The white working class is encouraged to elect Republicans who will make sure their tax dollars never flow to the “wrong” people.

And the original Romney quote about the 47% exists on a continuum with that. It doesn’t matter that Republicans way back when (and some of them still today) supported the targeted tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, policies which encouraged the poor to find work and benefit through the tax code rather than with a welfare distribution. The more prominent strain on the conservative right views everyone not in the 53% that “pays their taxes” as parasites and moochers.

Mark Schmitt describes the fact that the 53% also mooch with the best of them:

It’s also worth noting that most members of the “Nation of Takers” probably don’t think of ourselves as “takers.” In her important recent book, The Submerged State, Suzanne Mettler of Cornell looked at data asking people whether they had ever benefited from a government social program. While most participants in the classic, older transfer programs were aware that they had benefited from programs, most of the newer programs, especially those delivered through the tax code, were invisible to a majority of their beneficiaries. (Even 45 percent of Social Security recipients said they had never used a government program, which may reflect the belief that they are receiving benefits they’ve paid for.) […]

Delivering benefits through “submerged state” programs has broken any kind of connection between citizens and the benefits we receive. We can’t have a clear debate about whether we’re a “Nation of Takers” or whether these benefits are essential to maintaining the promise of a middle class country if most of us don’t even know the role that government plays in our lives.

Conservatives and liberals built the submerged state together, often sharing a preference for delivering benefits through the tax code. But a concerted effort to reduce the long-term budget deficit, with tax reform at the center of it, creates an opportunity to surface submerged programs and replace them with far more efficient, visible, direct programs. When the public is fully aware of the benefits it’s receiving, it’s possible that voters will recoil in shock at the degree of their dependency, or perhaps they will regain a healthy respect for the role of government in providing some of the security that helps them take full advantage of their capacities and opportunities.

I would argue that submerging the state serves the goals of conservatives just fine. It allows them to play this double game, demonizing those allegedly searching for handouts while ensuring that upper-class homeowners and corporate welfare recipients get their hands filled with cash. They profit off the opacity of the debate.

But make no mistake, the nation of moochers comments are in a far greater respect the essence of conservatism, rather than this vague theory about how low-tax trickle-down economics lifts everyone up.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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