Republicans have accused Democrats throughout the 2012 election of stoking a “class warfare” by pushing a proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy, for making a campaign issue of Mitt Romney’s tax returns and for demonizing his career in private equity.
The Republican tactic in the class war they accuse President Obama of stoking has been one of non-aggression.
“Sowing social unrest and class resentment makes America weaker, not stronger,” Rep. Paul Ryan said in October 2011. “Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country”
But Romney’s comments to a closed – and he thought unrecorded – fundraiser in May come at the class warfare from the other side of the fight. Romney conflated the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income taxes with the portion of the country who would never vote for him.
At the fundraiser, Romney was trying to explain his strategy; how he has to appeal to the small percentage of people whose opinions can be changed. But the recording makes it seem as though he has real disdain for the people who oppose him: “victims” who are “dependent” on the government. And they’re all people who don’t pay income taxes, he said.
People who don’t pay taxes, he implied to the room full of people paying $50,000 to help his campaign, vote for Obama. People who do, by extension, would vote for Romney.
Romney called the 5-month-old comments “inelegant” at a hastily called news conference in California – in between fundraisers – Monday night. But he didn’t walk away from them.
It’s not entirely true, of course. Many of the lower income people who don’t pay income taxes still pay payroll taxes to the federal government, sales and state taxes at home, gas taxes at the pump. Others of the 47 percent simply don’t have a job and might pay capital-gains taxes.
It was about a year ago, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, that Romney said the protests were a dangerous form of class warfare.
“I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare,” he told a questioner at a retirement community in Florida in October 2011.
That was in contrast to his own argument, one of an America unified by its economic system. He had a run-in with an Occupy protester asking him what he’d do for the “one percent.” His campaign promoted the video of Romney becoming agitated with the protester.
“Let me tell you something: America is a great nation because we’re a united nation,” he said in South Carolina just before the primary there in January. “And those who try and divide the nation, as you’re trying to do here and as our president is doing, are hurting this country seriously.
“The right course for America is not to divide America and try and divide us between one and another. It’s to come together as a nation. And if you’ve got a better model, if you think China’s better, or Russia’s better, or Cuba’s better, or North Korea’s better, I’m glad to hear all about it. But you know what, you know what, America’s right and you’re wrong.”
Class warfare was a major talking point at the time, not just regarding the Occupy protests, but also because Obama was vocally pushing the Buffett Rule, his proposal to raise taxes on people making more than $1 million, as one element of dealing with the federal deficit.
“You can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense,” Obama said during his State of the Union address in January.
He called simultaneously for delaying an end to a payroll tax cut for people who make less money. Watch that here.
Republicans have complained, accurately, that targeting the rich with new taxes wouldn’t, in itself, solve the budget problem and also that it pitted one layer of the socio-economic strata against another. Democrats have countered that raising taxes will have to be part of the cure.
The issue will continue not matter who wins the presidency as the country faces a “fiscal cliff” that pairs the end of Bush era tax cuts and automatic spending cuts that will affect both the Pentagon and domestic spending programs.
Among the Republicans who most vocally equated the Buffett Rule with a kind of class warfare was Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee. This was long before Mitt Romney had secured the Republican nomination and long before Ryan was being considered as his running mate.
“Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country, corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless,” Ryan said, accusing the president of a ‘politics of division” in a speech to the Heritage Foundation later in October 2011.
Meanwhile, some conservatives on the right are applauding Romney’s “inelegant” candor in the videos.
“This election poses a choice for voters: Do you want a country dependent on government programs and handouts, or do you want a country with an economy that produces good jobs and returns America to a higher standard of living?” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots in a statement, calling Romney’s comments an opportunity to have a necessary debate on government dependence.
“We need that guy on the campaign trail,” Redstate.com’s Erick Erickson tweeted of the comments in the surreptitiously recorded tapes.
But if Romney is to appeal in the next 49 days to the 5 percent or so of voters that he believes could get him to 50.1 percent and a victory, dismissing 47 percent of Americans as dependent, government-addicted victims could land him squarely into the “politics of division” that Ryan decried a year ago.