Romney’s 47% comment should spark debate over ‘entitlement society’ versus an ‘opportunity society’

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Media elites are breathlessly reporting that Mitt Romney’s campaign is on the ropes after a secret recording taken at a fundraiser surfaced.

So far, the coverage has been to advance the “Romney is doomed” narrative — and to focus on process. But the substance is worthy of discussion.

So what was this horrible thing that Mitt Romney said?:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax. (Emphasis mine.)

Politically, it is almost always a mistake candidates to talk like a strategist (even if they think it’s off the record), and Romney is certainly guilty of that here.

This is basically what he was trying to tell the donor who asked the question: We live in a world of limited resources, campaigns must wisely husband their resources (time and money). Political targeting involves two very politically incorrect things — profiling and discrimination, and Obama and I will do both. We will profile and target persuadable, likely voters for advocacy. We will target supporters for turnout. And, yes, both sides will ignore people we know will never vote for us. (Note: I can say this because I’m not running for president.)

People don’t want to know how the sausage is made, but that is essentially how campaigns are run.

There were other problems with his comments. Ramesh Ponnuru pokes holes in the notion that increased dependency on government hurts Republicans electorally. The 47 percent figure is also problematic. First, people who don’t pay federal icome taxes obviously pay other taxes. Second, as Jim Antle points out, Republican tax cuts are partly responsible for the fact that a lot of Americans pay no federal income taxes.

But all of this is nitpicking. Romney’s comments weren’t just about taxes, but also about the growing number of Americans who believe they are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

Rather than focusing solely on the horse race aspect of this, Romney’s comments should present an opportunity to have a national conversation about the future of America.

The bottom line is this: Do we want to have an entitlement society or an opportunity society?

This is a big, big question. Barack Obama, as evidenced by the Life of Julia, seems to hold a worldview in which Americans are dependent on government from cradle to grave. Mitt Romney, as evidenced by many things — including his selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate — wants to empower Americans to take responsibility for their own lives.

There are huge differences between the candidates and the parties on serious issues such as entitlement reform. Democrats and Republicans see the role and responsibility of government very differently.

Is there a better time than now to have this debate and discussion?

But it’s more fun for the press to talk about “process” stories, I guess…

Matt K. Lewis