Now, at least, there can be no doubt about who is waging class warfare in this presidential campaign. Mitt Romney would pit the winners against the "victims," the smug-and-rich against the down-on-their-luck, the wealthy tax avoiders against those too poor to owe income tax. He sees nearly half of all Americans as chumps who sit around waiting for a handout.
When Romney disclosed those views at a $50,000-a-plate fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla., earlier this year, he and his audience had no idea they were being surreptitiously recorded. Romney obviously believed he was among friends who shared his worldview, which I would translate as: "We must stop coddling the servants."
I am not exaggerating. Thanks to whoever leaked the recording to Mother Jones magazine, we know what Romney really thinks about the nation he seeks to lead:
"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 -- that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they're entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. But that's -- it'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. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax."
This analysis is not only grossly offensive but astonishingly ignorant. Romney suggests that nearly half of Americans are layabouts who only leave the house when they need to cash a government check -- or when it's time to vote for President Obama. Greetings, lazy bums, I'm Mitt Romney. Vote for me!
The truth is that Romney is mixing apples, oranges and bananas. The three groups he mentions -- those who support the president, those who receive payments from entitlement programs and those who are not required to pay federal income tax -- are not the same people. Quite a few senior citizens who receive Social Security and Medicare are Republicans. Quite a few working-class voters are not charter members of Team Obama.
But Romney's ignorance is not as shocking as his callousness. Here's what he says next about the 47 percent: "And -- and so 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."
To all the single parents holding down two minimum-wage jobs to make ends meet, all the seniors who saw their savings dwindle and had to go back to work part time, all the breadwinners who lost their jobs when private-equity firms swooped down to slash and burn -- to all struggling Americans it must come as a surprise to learn how irresponsible they've been. And it must be devastating to learn that, try as he might, Mitt Romney will never be able to show these unfortunates the error of their ways.
Romney might as well have quoted Cee Lo Green: "Forget you!"
In Romney's view, as expressed at that fundraiser, the key to victory is winning the 7 percent or so who voted for Obama in 2008 but do not belong to the incorrigible 47 percent who should be thought of as lost souls. His explanation of how he intended to reach these people made me think of what early European explorers must have told the folks back home about communicating with the Native Americans they encountered:
"You see, you and I, we spend our day with Republicans. We spend our days with people who agree with us. And these people are people who voted for [Obama] and don't agree with us. And so the things that animate us are not the things that animate them."
Maybe he should just try handing out shiny beads.
In an elegant dining room where the self-satisfaction was thick enough to cut with a knife, Romney made clear that he sees this election as "us" versus "them" -- wealthy Republicans versus the unwashed hordes, makers versus takers. Romney believes half of America is lazy, dependent and, frankly, not too bright.
Voters will soon have the opportunity to show him we're not as stupid as he thinks.
Eugene Robinson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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