Gaffe is as gaffe does. And in this political environment, when you make a "Gaffe" or even an alleged gaffe, it is open season on you and your platform.
You may recall a month ago, Obama gave a speech in which he clearly said that infrastructure like roads and bridges and the Internet, which were created or maintained using government funds, help businesses succeed. And in that regard, if you have a business that succeeded, you "didn't build" the roads and bridges that moved your products through commerce.
But, opportunistic Republicans (are there any other kind?) took this out of context, and edited the video to make it sound like Obama was saying that people, such as myself, who created their own businesses, didn't build their own businesses.
Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and fair is fair - the Democrats are running with the ball on Romney's poorly-worded comments about the 47%. And unlike the Obama clip, no editing is needed - Romney really stuck his foot in his mouth on this one.
But what he did was mangle a number of statistics together and come to the wrong conclusions.
Yes, about 47% of Americans pay no INCOME tax (46% if you want to nit-pick). But of course, they pay "payroll tax" if they have a job, and most people don't know what that means. The Payroll tax is the part taken out of your paycheck to pay for Medicare and Social Security - which is matched by your employer. If you are self-employed, you pay the whole deal, which until recently was 18% of your income up to $108,000. 18% - that's a full four percentage points higher than Romney paid in income tax.
And yes, those folks do expect to get paid back in the form of Social Security benefits and Medicare benefits. And to some extent, having paid into the system, they should expect to get paid back - after all, it was a promise made by the government. I analyzed this in previous posts - and while most people get back far more than they pay in, the amount they get back equals, roughly (at least in my case) the money paid in over 30 years of working, plus about 4% interest. Not a bad rate of return and not a bad loan rate for Uncle Sam.
So the idea that these sorts of folks are paying "nothing" in taxes and getting back someone else's money is somewhat wrong. A lot the money they get back will be the payroll taxes they paid in.
But the big error Romney made was in assuming that this 46% of the population was locked into voting for Obama. Surprisingly, many of the very poor and ignorant (it goes hand in hand) are big GOP and Romney fans - convinced that lowering the tax rates of people making $300,000 a year will somehow "trickle down" to them.
As I heard it explained on a Jesus radio station in rural Virginia, "Romney will make things friendlier for business, and when that happens, business will hire more people and we will all go back to work!"
Of course, this neglects the fact that Romney and his ilk have done a good job of making things friendlier for Chinese businesses - by outsourcing jobs overseas. Romney even criticized the tire case brought in the ITC by the Obama Administration (which lead to a staggering increase in the price of tires, as I wrote about earlier) as "protectionism". Today, Romney criticizes Obama for not being stronger on China. If you want to know what Romney believes in, buy a weathervane.
One lady here in rural Virginia remarked, after running into the store to buy $20 of cigarettes and $7 of gas, "I can't afford to put much more gas in my car, I'm so poor!" The fellow she was talking to replied, "That's the way Obama wants it!" and she chimed in, "You got that right!"
Now, of course, I would question her priorities vis-a-vis spending on cigarettes versus gas. And perhaps she didn't really need a Suburban to drive to the grocery store in. But to even raise such issues is to accused of being a Communist in these parts, so I kept my own counsel. But this lady was clearly in the 47% - and Romney was writing her off as an Obama supporter! Bad move!
A lot of these folks are convinced that the GOP is going to help them. Why is this? The answer is varied. The GOP has used "social issues" in a calculated manner to attract the fundamentalist voters. These represent a minority of Americans, but they will get out and vote, if you promise to protect gun rights and oppose abortion and gay marriage. Once in office, of course, you can proceed to loot the treasury and then pass some legislation that nominally moves the ball down the field on social issues. Hey, what do you care? You can afford to fly your daughter to Europe for an abortion, or at least Canada. These sort of things don't affect the 1%, right?
And many believe, wrongly, that the GOP is the party of "business" and if you elect Republican leaders, they will make things better for businesses, and somehow this will equate into wealth for them. However, statistics seem to show otherwise - as Bill Clinton noted during the Democratic convention. Economic growth has been greater under Democratic Presidents than under Republicans. And another disturbing statistic - States that are "Red States" tend to take more in government money that they pay back. Yes, people in New York effectively subsidize Alabama. The 47% are not Obama supporters, but oddly enough, mostly Romney supporters, particularly if they are white.
Yes, race. That is the ugly side of it. People vote or support candidates for odd reasons. When Bill Clinton was being impeached, I was talking about the issue with some friends who were Democrats. I expected them to be sympathetic to the President, but they were vehemently against him. I prodded a bit and found out that both of them had been cheated on by their former spouses, and while they supported Clinton's policies, the emotional issue of marital infidelity was enough to send them over the edge - quite literally.
And similarly, many of the hateful e-mails I get from people with Obama conspiracy theories are really just cover for racism. One fellow who sends me these things is pretty frank in his outright hatred of black people. Another, a Mexican-American, remembers vividly the racial divide between Latinos and Blacks in her high school - and the incidents it sparked. She is against Obama because he doesn't have a valid birth certificate, she says. The personal issue of racism is not the cause, of course. And as for political positions, she really can't articulate any. Politics are funny that way. And that is why you can get people to vote against their self-interest, fairly easily. You just need to find the right emotional hook to bait them with.
So Romney was all wrong, right? Well, not exactly. What he was getting at, in-eloquently, was the specter raised by the far right since the days of Roosevelt. And that is the idea that our society will have a "tipping point" - where more people are getting money from the government than not. And when this happens, well, the government will end up running everything and running it into the ground.
Heinlein expressed this succinctly in one of his Lazarus Long stories. The quote goes along the lines of something like this: "Democracy fails when the plebes all realize they can vote themselves a raise."
And this has happened in our history before. Ancient Rome fell, not because the Visigoths were charging the gates of the city, but because the empire rotted from within. Emperors worried more about keeping the public placated and subsidized. So "Bread and Circuses" were the order of the day - free bread and free entertainment. And fed and distracted, the citizenry was placated and malleable.
Have we reached this point? It is a worthy issue worth discussing. And unfortunately, Romney botched the whole thing. Maybe someone explained it to him quickly backstage, and it all got tossed around in his head. While he is better at pronouncing the hard words than George Bush, it seems he really isn't much of an intellectual heavyweight. Maybe he just had a long day - or a poor speechwriter.
From my perspective, I don't think the tipping point has been reached. Most of the hateful e-mails I get from friends, forwarding the latest Obama conspiracy theories, or even "Birther" paranoia (yes, they are still out there) are from people who are in the 47%. So clearly, Obama doesn't have a "lock" on this segment of the population.
And if he did, what would be the point in Romney running? After all, if your opponent starts with a 47% lead, there is little hope of winning at all. And maybe that is why Romney appears to be phoning it in. He is the sacrificial lamb - the distractor, preventing us from thinking about what is really important in this election - the House and Senate. People obsess about the Presidential election, but meanwhile, gerrymandering and redistricting, along with late-in-the-game voter registration "purges" will insure that many Democratic seats in the House and Senate switch sides this election.
That really is the big enchilada in this election - but not many are talking about it. We are all distracted by the Gaffes and the latest Presidential polls.