Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What Mitt Romney Should Have (or Could Have) Said

A just-released video of GOP presidential candidate former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) speaking at a fundraiser on May 17, 2012, provides an excellent example of how the debate about legitimate issues gets twisted into caricature and distortion.

Speaking about the American population, and a segment of it that he believed wouldn't vote for him, 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. And, I mean, the President starts off with 48, 49 -- he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So, our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. He’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years. And, so, my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to is convince the five to ten percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon, in some cases, emotion, whether they like the guy or not".
There's some argument here about what are the actual percentages of people who are on some form of government assistance and who don't pay income taxes.

But, whatever the number, Romney is demonizing people by saying they have all rejected taking personal responsibility for their lives (i.e., they're not working for a living), and that they will therefore only vote for a candidate (i.e., President Barack Obama) who will have government pay their way for them. This is a derisive caricature. No doubt, there are probably some people on government assistance who fit this bill, but not all of them. Some are disabled or elderly, they haven't rejected personal responsibility. And it's far from clear that, of the people on government assistance, none of them would vote for Romney. Romney's comments were worse than "not elegantly stated", they were demonizing.

Romney's comments are comparable to those made by then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) in 2008 when he said that some voters adopted contrary political positions because they were:
"bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations".
Much of the misbehavior in political debate occurs when someone takes a legitimate point and then exaggerates it or distorts it into something that's false and derisive. That's exactly what's going on with Romney's comments (and then-Sen. Obama's).

Romney could have said something different that would have expressed a legitimate point without resorting to caricature and demonizing.

Such as:
There's a large percentage of Americans who are on government assistance, and a large percentage who pay no income tax. Some of that is understandable and acceptable, because some Americans aren't able to work to provide for themselves or don't earn enough to pay income taxes. But this high level of assistance and low level of tax-paying aren't sustainable. People on government assistance should only receive what they need. And, as often as is possible, we need to make sure that people on government assistance don't feel that this is their lot in life. They should feel that this is a step to something better, to a situation where they earn more and pay more of their own bills because they work and provide more to others. And we need to demonstrate how our policies of lower taxes and less entitlement spending plays a role in creating that situation.
Granted, people might disagree with elements of this (in particular, the empirical claims about which policies yield what sorts of results), but it doesn't amount to name-calling. Opponents don't need to be psychologized and dismissed.

How difficult is it to state your position without resorting to name-calling?

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