The one interesting thing about Mitt Romney is his nearly pathological absence of political savvy. Has there ever been a national candidate who has managed to alienate or outright insult so many potential voters? The tiny pebbles of cruel or clueless Mittisms – mocking the cookies some elderly women supporters baked for him and the cheap rain ponchos of Nascar fans; the delight in firing incompetent domestic workers; the entreaty that ‘corporations are people too’; the casual ‘I’ll bet you $10,000’ made to the dense Rick Perry in the Republican debates or the offhand reference to Ann Romney’s ‘couple of Cadillacs’; the assertion that the typical middle-class family makes $250,000 a year (median income per household is $50,000) – have, in the last few weeks, turned into an avalanche that has not only buried his campaign, but quite possibly the prospects of other Republicans in tight races around the country. Right-wing pundits and would-be congressmen are now trampling dogs and small children as they scramble to get off the sinking presidential yacht.
It was bad enough that, at the Republican convention, Mitt’s exceedingly long acceptance speech failed to praise veterans, fallen soldiers, and the troops overseas – rhetorical tropes as essential to these occasions as the evocation of God’s eternal blessings on the US of A. But then, in a subsequent interview, Mitt tried to explain the omission: ‘When you give a speech you don’t go through a laundry list, you talk about the things that you think are important.’ Needless to say, the grunts in Kandahar, the permanently maimed, and the military widows, widowers and orphans did not appreciate being compared to pressed button-down shirts.
On 11 September, as the news of the riots in Libya and Egypt was just coming in, Mitt’s statement – ‘It's disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathise with those who waged the attacks’ – delivered with a creepy smirk that quickly went viral, violated two cardinal rules of American campaign etiquette. A challenger never criticises the president in the middle of a sudden crisis – it is presumed that the nation rallies together. And, even more important, there is no overt politicking on 9/11, the holiest of Holy Days, a day for strictly non-partisan pieties. That Mitt acted rashly – and got most of the facts wrong – flunked the ‘potential presidential crisis management’ test (a.k.a. the ‘3 a.m. phone call’) and was a further demonstration of his diplomatic skills, not many weeks after insulting the British for their organisation of the Olympics, insulting the Palestinians by characterising their culture as inferior to that of the Israelis, while simultaneously insulting the Israelis by praising them for the inherent Jewish talent for making money.
And now there is the famous, endlessly looping video of Mitt talking to some bored-looking zillionaires at a $50,000-a-plate dinner in the Boca Raton (‘Mouse Mouth’) home of one Marc Leder – a hedge funder previously known only to readers of tabloids for the parties he hosts at the $500,000-a-month mansion he rents in the Hamptons, one of which, it is said, featured bikinied Russian women on raised platforms and men twirling flaming torches, while guests milled around naked and openly had sex by the pool.
On the video – apparently surreptitiously shot by some crafty person on the catering staff – Mitt unabashedly states his hope that there will a crisis like the Iranian hostage situation that sandbagged Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election (‘if something of that nature presents itself, I will work to find a way to take advantage of the opportunity’), which explains why he was so quick to jump on the Libyan crisis, oblivious to the unfolding violence. (In a fitting twist of fate, it was Carter’s grandson who discovered the video and sent it to Mother Jones to post on their website.) He unveils a somewhat less than visionary plan of action for Israel-Palestine: ‘We kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve.’ He discloses his blueprint for economic recovery, which is that the mere fact of his election will stimulate business, and gloats through a long story about a prison-like sweatshop in China he was once thinking of buying (and maybe did). He even manages to ridicule his wife: ‘We use Ann sparingly right now, so that people don't get tired of her.’
Most of all, as everyone now knows, Mitt reveals his utter contempt for nearly half the population of the country he so frequently professes to love. (The less ambitious Barry Goldwater only wanted to ‘saw off the eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea’.)
There are 47 per cent of the people … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that 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 … These are people who pay no income tax … My job is not to worry about those people – I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
It’s a story line that began with Ronald Reagan, who used to talk about a completely fictitious black ‘welfare queen’ driving a Cadillac (probably stolen from Ann Romney) and collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in government checks, and the ‘big buck’ on the supermarket line buying T-bone steaks with his food stamps while average white Joes buy hamburger meat with their hard-earned dollars.
The myth has never died – despite Reagan’s late realisation that most of the million people he had made homeless by eliminating poverty programs were, in fact, white – and has now expanded to include the growing Hispanic population. It has become the predominant Republican narrative, its racism sometimes slightly disguised by pious mutterings about the national debt: hardworking white people are having to pay for a bunch of freeloading blacks and browns, who think that the government owes them everything, who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives. Moreover, as Mitt makes clear on the Mouse Mouth video, these self-proclaimed ‘victims’ elected Obama because they knew he would take care of his own and keep the free money flowing. The 47 per cent, Mitt says, ‘will vote for the president no matter what’. And he adds: ‘If the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American voting bloc has in the past, why we're in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.’ The dusky barbarians are at the gate.
The racial message was clear enough to those eating their $50,000 dinners in Boca Raton, but broadcast into the larger and somewhat more reality-based world it took on another meaning. The vast majority of the 47 per cent (actually 46 per cent) are white and nearly all are extremely poor people or the retired elderly who are living off their savings and Social Security or the disabled (including veterans) or students or soldiers serving in combat zones (who don’t pay taxes – no wonder Mitt didn’t mention those spongers at the convention). Among those who pay ‘no income tax’ – meaning federal taxes – almost all pay state and local taxes, and payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare). Some pay property taxes; everyone pays sales taxes. The states with the highest number of 47-percenters traditionally vote Republican. ‘Those people’, in other words, include quite a few potential Romney voters – many of whom, one imagines, are now former potential Romney voters. Television has gone round-the-clock with tales of honorable people who found themselves in hard times and needed temporary help, including – it is perfect – the young George Romney, Mitt’s sainted Dad, before he made his millions.
Trying to follow Republican logic can often induce vertigo. Mitt prides himself on his tax-avoidance skills, and thousands of 1-percenters (including six known multibillionaires) pay no federal taxes at all, thanks to their elaborate systems of loopholes and tax shelters, most of them legislated by Republicans. The Ryan budget proposes to eliminate entirely nearly all the taxes that the mega-rich pay. But, in the Mittopian universe, where the rich shouldn’t have to pay any taxes, the poor who don’t pay taxes are a bunch of moochers.
Romney will never recover from Mouse Mouth, but there is something sinister that will linger on. The primary word that the right is using to characterise the 47 per cent, and the left is using to characterise the characterisation, is ‘parasite’. As Mary Matalin, an omnipresent Republican talking head, put it on CNN: ‘There are makers and takers, there are producers and there are parasites.’ Tens of millions will vote for Romney and many of them will be believers in this myth. Perhaps it’s worth remembering the last time a large segment of a population was vilified as parasites: Der Jude als Weltparasit (‘The Jew as World Parasite’). These things tend to stick.