As Chris Bertram says in comments here, Romney’s main hope of getting away with his claim that 47 per cent of the US population are non-taxpaying moochers is the expectation that very few people will actually regard themselves as part of that 47 per cent. The same calculation is made by those who have pushed this talking point for years such as well-known plagiarist Ben Domenech and general lowlife Erick Erickson. It’s unsurprising that they should think this. After all, they’ve been making this claim, in one form or another for years, going back to the WSJ’s attack on “lucky duckies” in 2002. The claim has been refuted time and again with the points that most of the 47 per cent are workers subject to payroll tax, or retired people, but this refutation hasn’t reached the Fox News audience, many of whom don’t realise they are the moochers being attacked here.
But I don’t think this will help Romney, and the reasons why reflect some important developments in relation to post-truth political discourse in the US.
The parallel universe constructed by the right is built primarily on talking points, of which “47 per cent of Americans pay no tax” is a great example. These talking points work well, within the rightwing universe, no matter how misleading they are, and how thoroughly refuted by left/liberal critics. These talking points are never subjected to sharp questioning by the centrist media, nor do they need to fit into a coherent analysis. The 47 per cent line got a good run in the Republican primary campaign, and didn’t cause any trouble for Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann (they caused enough for themselves).
Things change when a point like this escapes into a general election campaign, especially when it is attached to a definite number and a definite group of people. Mitt Romney won’t tell senior citizens or low-wage workers in North Carolina that they are part of the 47 per cent he’s written off, but the Obama campaign will certainly do it for him. Romney can either stay silent and hope it all blows over or try the kind of tortured “clarification” being offered by people like Erickson.
There’s an even bigger problem arising for Romney, mentioned but not fully spelt out in this NY Times article. The fact that many working families pay no income tax is largely due to the Earned Income Tax Credit and the child tax credit (doubled by George Bush). Romney has promised to fund his tax cuts for the rich by cutting exemptions and allowances. On the face of it, his remarks imply that the EITC and child tax credit are in the firing line. It’s hard to see that being sustainable, but ruling out these items is only going to intensify the problems arising from the fact that his promises don’t add up.
All of this is coming at a time when the centrist media is finally feeling the heat for its decades of “he said, she said” reporting, and when the Romney-Ryan team has been called out quite a few times for its factual inaccuracies, aka lies. The initial coverage of the 47 per cent claim seems mostly to state the facts prominently, and in the voice of the newspaper/media outlet rather than “Democrats say ….”/
Perhaps I’m being over-optimistic here, but I think Romney will find it hard to untangle this mess.