The real problem with Romney’s ‘47 percent’ gaffe

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
Font Size:

Liberals believe they have found the smoking gun that will doom Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations forever: a video in which the Republican presidential nominee says that 47 percent of Americans will stick with Barack Obama because they “are dependent on government” and “believe … that they are victims.”

At the very least, liberals hope this will be Romney’s “bitter clingers” to guns and religion moment.

“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” Romney said of the dreaded 47 percent.

The problem is that Romney isn’t basing that figure on dependency on government programs. He’s using the rough percentage of people who pay no federal income tax.

There are two reasons the percentage of Americans who don’t write checks to the IRS has spiked in recent years: the bad economy, which Romney pledges to ameliorate, and Republican tax cuts, which Romney plans to continue.

When Ronald Reagan signed into law the Tax Reform Act of 1986, he boasted, “Millions of the working poor will be dropped from the tax rolls altogether, and families will get a long-overdue break with lower rates and an almost doubled personal exemption.”

Both the initial Reagan tax cuts of 1981 and indexing income taxes to inflation in 1985 had a similar effect.

In the 1990s, the Republican-controlled Gingrich Congress passed a $500 per child tax credit that also wiped out the income tax liability of many low- to moderate-income households.

“Fully 93 percent of the tax relief in our bill goes to taxpayers with annual incomes under $100,000, 76 percent goes to taxpayers with incomes under $75,000,” then-House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, a Texas Republican, said at the time. “If ever there was a tax plan for America’s forgotten middle class, this is it.”

George W. Bush expanded the child tax credit as president and also signed into law tax cuts that reduced the bottom marginal income tax rate from 15 percent to 10 percent. Both moves increased the percentage of people not paying income tax.

Far from enabling the growth of government, tax relief for the working poor and middle class has made it possible to enact across-the-board tax cuts that apply even to upper-income earners.

Ignoring the rising payroll tax burden of the last few decades while dismissing many of those who have borne it as deadbeats could well have the opposite effect.

There is little evidence that the people who have stopped paying income tax as a result of Republicans’ policies have moved leftward politically.

Today married parents of children, the kind of people who benefit from the child tax credit, are actually Romney’s strongest supporters.

In 2008, Obama carried voters making from $100,000 to $150,000 and $150,000 to $200,000, albeit by smaller margins than the electorate as a whole.

The percentage of Americans paying federal income taxes was far lower when Calvin Coolidge was president than when LBJ was implementing the Great Society.

As National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru put it, “Conservatives cannot really believe that it was a flaw in America’s founding that nobody paid income taxes to the federal government for almost all of the country’s history before the welfare state.”

The logic of this position has led some Republicans, including tea party favorite Michele Bachmann during her presidential campaign, to call for taxing the poor even as she opposed returning to the top income tax rate of the Clinton era.

This is incredibly shortsighted politics and economics.

Applying even a symbolic tax increase to subsistence levels of income earned by people who have been battered by the recession creates a situation where Republicans have literally nothing to offer many voters.

Those dollars are better spent having the working poor support their own families instead of supporting government.

To argue otherwise is to indulge in some perverse conservative version of “You didn’t build that.”

Surely making everyone pay “even if it’s just a dollar” won’t prompt people to give up their government benefits.

This also treats non-taxpayers as a permanent class, ignoring the economic mobility conservatives recognize in most other contexts.

Since when has it been the job of Republicans and conservatives to make sure everyone has IRS obligations?

The explosive growth of a deficit-financed welfare state, which increases the number of people who are net government beneficiaries, is the real problem.

Policies leading to lower taxes for everyone, including the 47 percent, are part of the solution.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.