Was Romney’s Tax Gaffe a Repudiation of Reaganite Conservatism?

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Rebecca Cook / Reuters

Mitt Romney addresses a crowd of supporters during a rally at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Mich. on May 8, 2012.

Mitt Romney is still dealing with the fallout from that now infamous fundraiser in May in which he tried out his best Thurston Howell imitation in front of a crowd of rich people. He’s been clobbered for his performance by Democrats and late-night talk-show hosts, of course. Conservatives, however, seem split about the remarks. Some are not only rallying around Romney in his time of need but also defending the statements. “Romney sounded remarkably like …  a real conservative,” wrote Michael Walsh of National Review. “He ought to own it.” On Fox News, Bill O’Reilly agreed: “If I’m Governor Romney, I run with this all day long.”

But others have harshly criticized Romney, and not just because it’s politically unwise to seemingly write off half the electorate. In fact, numerous conservatives have been arguing that Romney’s remarks implicitly reject one of the fundamental tenets of the conservative agenda: that carefully targeted tax breaks and deductions can work economic and social miracles, a favorite claim of Republicans from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.

In the Washington Post, for example, Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute charges Romney with “severely misstat[ing] and undermin[ing] conservative principles” and insulting Reagan’s legacy.

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He’s got a point. One of the main reasons so many Americans don’t pay income tax is the existence of tax breaks and deductions that Republicans have long supported.

Let’s break it down. Roughly half of those who don’t pay income tax are simply poor. Of the rest, Roberton Williams of the Tax Policy Center explains:

Three-fourths of those households pay no income tax because of provisions that benefit senior citizens and low-income working families with children. Those provisions include the exclusion of some Social Security benefits from taxable income, the tax credit and extra standard deduction for the elderly, and the child, earned income, and childcare tax credits that primarily help low-income workers with children.

These deductions weren’t just acts of political expedience. They reflect a profound difference in ideology between (most) Republicans and (most) Democrats. Democrats tend to prefer to help people in financially tough situations through government programs; Republicans generally prefer to help those same people through the tax code.

Take the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a longtime Republican favorite, which offers a tax credit to low- and moderate-income Americans who are employed or self-employed and meet certain other requirements. If the credit is bigger than their tax bill, they end up getting a tax refund despite having paid nothing. While this might sound a bit like welfare, Republicans embraced the idea of the EITC because they saw it “as an anti-poverty tool that emphasizes the importance of labor force participation,” as Reihan Salam notes on his National Review blog:

The idea …  is that subsidies aimed at increasing labor force participation and other work supports are preferable to a negative income tax or unconditional cash assistance because they encourage people to get on the first rungs of the jobs ladder, and to become less dependent over time.

In other words, the idea behind the EITC is to transform “takers” into “makers” by allowing them to pay little or no income tax, at least temporarily.

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And these people, Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute argues, are precisely those whom Romney should be courting most assiduously. Indeed, he suggests, Romney’s remarks were an insult to the “forgotten American,” Reagan’s term for the hardworking (if not necessarily well paid) everyman who bleeds red, white and blue. “[I]n Reagan’s view,” Olsen writes,

ordinary people were capable of greatness … But when Romney divides the world into makers and takers and presumes that our ability to pay federal income tax is a measure of which group we belong to, he sends a different message. He implicitly tells average Americans that their quiet work doesn’t “make” America unless they are entrepreneurs who make enough money. Worse, he tells them that their lives aren’t even dignified, that they are “takers” who are unable to exercise personal responsibility over their lives.

It seems likely that Romney will be explaining his remarks for a long time to come.

8 comments
George McDowell
George McDowell

It's one thing to be a corporate criminal. No shame in that these days. But to win the Tea Party nomination for the presidency? His work as a cult leader and tax evader is being overshadowed by his pathetic run for the presidency. If he keeps it up, people won't even remember all the American jobs he sent overseas while at Bain Capital.

SixSixSix
SixSixSix

Not only does Romney define losers as those who don't pay income tax, but worse yet, he defines "success" by whoever has the largest bank account.

So after all of this after he says Americans don't want a President who pays one more dime than he has to. It appears that somehow Mitt Romney has an envy and classs resentment towards those who pay no tax only if they make less than him. But the given the same or more makes it cool to skip taxes.

Sweet rigged game if you can get to write the rules.

prestalex
prestalex

That many of the so-called "47%'ers" are actually Romney supporters it truly makes me wonder how old Mitt could not have understood this before making such a ridiculous and condescending comment. But it does re-inforce my opinion of him as speaking first and then scrambling for damage control.

Is this really a trait that we need for handling delicate international issues? I think not...

jotus
jotus

Republicans like EITC because it makes a lot of money for the tax preparers who charge outrageous fees to prepare taxes for people too poor or uneducated to do it themselves. I know people who have given up to a third of the refund to the preparer for various fees.

John Cook
John Cook

Romney and Ryan need to release the SPECIFICS on how they plan on implementing and funding their policies. 

Hearing Romney and his campaign statements, they have internal polling that if they release or talk about the specific of his or Ryan's plan then they will lose some Republican voters and many independents.

AARP does not seem to think the Romney and Ryan plans are good for seniors. I think I'll take the AARP's word for it.

Most independents that I talk to are not going to vote for Romney and Ryan due to their policies and funding of those policies. Romney is not losing cause he is a flawed. He is losing cause of what the impact may be from the Romney and Ryan plan.

The press and the right are going to have to come to terms with this basic reality.

z
z

Memo to people with a mind: Reaganomics does not work.  It did not work for Hoover, Reagan, or Bush.  Hoover gave us the great depression; Reagan gave us giant deficits,  the destruction of the middle class, and a hate of "Government of, for, and by the people"; and Bush gave us the great recession.  How many times do you do the same thing over and over again that does not work before you learn anything?

JohnYuEsq
JohnYuEsq

Romney = NIXON = CROOK 

 

Swiss Bank Account, Hidden Taxes, Cayman Island Tax Haven. Who does that? CROOKS like MADOFF and ROMNEY. 

 

SAVE the U.S.A., VOTE the DEMOCRATIC TICKET come November!

Charlie Self
Charlie Self

 I think one of two reasons exist for the refusal to release specifics: either they don't have any, or the specifics are so draconian for middle and lower income people that they'll only be acceptable, as Ryan says, when we're told after the duo takes office.