Much controversy has swirled around a Wednesday conference call in which Mitt Romney discussed the reasons for his loss to Barack Obama with donors, and cited Obama’s taxpayer-funded “gifts” to various constituencies as one of the big reasons. This has prompted a spirited response from some conservatives, Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Florida Senator Marco Rubio prominent among them, to the effect that Romney is both factually incorrect to describe blocs of voters as retail purchases by the re-elected President, and politically unhelpful to make his observations in such blunt language, because it’s going to alienate people the Republican Party needs to win as voters.
In other words, Romney’s parting gift to the Republican Party was drawing the starting line for the 2016 presidential race, and folks like Jindal and Rubio are already limbering up. Given the general nature of his political instincts, it’s probably not the specific result Romney intended, but it’s helpful nonetheless.
Let’s take this backwards and look at the responses from Rubio and Jindal, before we get into exactly what Romney said. Rubio conceded that he wasn’t part of the conference call and therefore didn’t have Romney’s exact words at hand, but as reported by Politico, he felt the GOP’s mission “should not be to deny government benefits to people who need them,” but rather to ensure the sort of general prosperity that would mean “less people need government benefits.”
“I don???t want to rebut him point by point,” Rubio said of Romney. “I would just say to you, I don???t believe that we have millions and millions of people in this country that don???t want to work. I???m not saying that???s what he said. I think we have millions of people in this country that are out of work and are dependent on the government because they can’t find a job.”
Rubio added that the economy is not producing jobs and many unemployed workers don’t have the required skills for vacant positions, “and therein lies the challenge for the conservative movement; how do our ideas help change that.”
Jindal was far more pointed and forceful in his criticism, becoming “visibly agitated” in Politico’s accounting:
???No, I think that???s absolutely wrong,??? he said at a press conference that opened the [Republican Governors Association’s] post-election meeting here. ???Two points on that: One, we have got to stop dividing the American voters. We need to go after 100 percent of the votes, not 53 percent. We need to go after every single vote.
???And, secondly, we need to continue to show how our policies help every voter out there achieve the American Dream, which is to be in the middle class, which is to be able to give their children an opportunity to be able to get a great education. ??? So, I absolutely reject that notion, that description. I think that???s absolutely wrong.???
???I don???t think that represents where we are as a party and where we???re going as a party,??? he said. ???That has got to be one of the most fundamental takeaways from this election: If we???re going to continue to be a competitive party and win elections on the national stage and continue to fight for our conservative principles, we need two messages to get out loudly and clearly: One, we are fighting for 100 percent of the votes, and secondly, our policies benefit every American who wants to pursue the American dream. Period. No exceptions.???
Jindal also thinks Romney did a good deal of damage to the Republican Party with his “47 percent” comments, countering those remarks with exactly the same insistence that the GOP “is going to fight for every single vote… that means the 47 percent and the 53 percent, that means any other combination of numbers going up to 100 percent.”
Here is what Romney said during his post-election conference call with donors, as transcribed by the L.A. Times:
Obama, Romney argued, had been ???very generous??? to blacks, Hispanics and young voters. He cited as motivating factors to young voters the administration???s plan for partial forgiveness of college loan interest and the extension of health coverage for students on their parents??? insurance plans well into their 20s. Free contraception coverage under Obama???s healthcare plan, he added, gave an extra incentive to college-age women to back the president.
Romney argued that Obama???s healthcare plan???s promise of coverage ???in perpetuity??? was ???highly motivational??? to those voters making $25,000 to $35,000 who might not have been covered, as well as to African American and Hispanic voters. Pivoting to immigration, Romney said the Obama campaign???s efforts to paint him as ???anti-immigrant??? had been effective and that the administration???s promise to offer what he called ???amnesty??? to the children of illegal immigrants had helped turn out Hispanic voters in record numbers.
???The president???s campaign,??? he said, ???focused on giving targeted groups a big gift ??? so he made a big effort on small things. Those small things, by the way, add up to trillions of dollars.???
Jindal is certainly correct to say that it’s both rhetorically toxic to write off large chunks of the electorate, and an unhelpful attitude. Barack Obama’s policies have hung a huge number of Americans out to dry, and his political strategy was (and remains) extremely divisive, but you’ll never catch him saying he doesn’t “care” about some large percentage of the electorate, or doesn’t think he has any chance of winning their vote. (For the record, he didn’t even say that about the “bitter clingers” in his 2008 version of Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe. He mused that it was difficult for him to communicate with the Bitter Clingers because of their irrational obsession with God and guns, and he mourned their stubborn refusal to accept the maternal embrace of Big Government, but he didn’t completely write them off.)
Winners aim high. A strategy designed to eke out a modest win, working against a self-imposed conceptual ceiling of 53 percent at best, is not aiming high enough. Jindal’s attitude is much healthier: he wants 100 percent, and wants to make sure the Republican presidential campaign in 2016 is clearly audible to every seat in the house. And a good President – indeed, any good elected official – really should be thinking about what’s best for 100 percent of the country.
As much as I’m generally on board with what Jindal and Rubio have said, let me add a small dash of cold water. What Romney said about Hispanic voters and amnesty is objectively incorrect. They don’t really turn out for “amnesty” per se; it’s more a case of being turned off by the language that is sometimes deployed against it. But he’s not entirely wrong to note the power of carefully targeted pandering. (Are we all supposed to be so thoroughly disappointed in Romney that we pretend to forget that pandering to carefully selected groups of voters, usually with the promise of tangible taxpayer-funded benefits, is both commonplace and generally effective? And by no means exclusively the province of Democrats?)
Obama very obviously expected political returns for some of the “gifts” Romney mentioned. The student loan giveaway was an almost comically explicit example. Have the people castigating Romney forgotten how Obama and his minions spent months flitting between college campuses to deliver campaign speeches and sing the praises of those subsidized student loan rates, which evil Republicans wanted to terminate because they hate kids? And Obama’s idea for funding that little “gift” involved damaging taxes on small businesses. The big rhetorical difference between Obama and Romney – and unquestionably one reason the former won the election – is that Obama is happy to tell small businessmen he cares about them, and wants their votes, even as he bleeds them dry.
Can anyone keep a straight face while denying that the “free” contraception benefits Romney mentioned were pitched to college students (not really just young women) as a reason to vote for Obama?
Consider the language of “granting” or “denying” access pioneered by Sandra Fluke to discuss those contraception benefits, and you can see that much of the Obama campaign was more about terrorizing people into thinking their lollipops would be taken away if they didn’t vote for him. That’s the genius of socialist “entitlement” language. The beneficiaries are taught to think of those benefits as their rightful property, not a “gift” from the State. Then they’re taught to hate the people whose language of fiscal sanity masks a sinister desire to take that “property” away. Meanwhile, the rights of individual citizens to actual property they have earned, with their own labor and investment, dwindles away to an abstraction: You didn’t build that. Someone else made that happen.
Rubio is correct to believe that some of the hard-core dependency will evaporate when a robust economy provides more opportunities for investment and job growth. Not too many people like to think of themselves as entirely dependent upon the State. Rubio’s right to believe that most of them want to work, and prosper. But the safety-net-as-hammock crowd was always relatively small, and never the mortal danger to the Republic. It’s the middle-class people who have become quietly ensnared in government programs, and taught to believe that private industry is a frightening menace that Uncle Sam must protect them from.
It’s not really about “makers versus takers”; it’s about makers who are also takers. It’s about a middle class that has become far too comfortable with receiving benefits that they really do think of as “free.” Talk of deficit bombs and fiscal cliffs all sounds abstract to them, and the Evil Rich whose taxes stand to get jacked up are faceless fat cats, completely disconnected from the middle class, who have plenty of money to burn. How does talk about red numbers on some government spreadsheet compare to tangible promises of great things Washington can do, with money printed up in the Treasury basement, or skimmed from the treasure vaults of distant mansions?
That’s the problem with selling the language of growth, empowerment, and freedom Rubio and Jindal excel at delivering. That stuff all sounds abstract to far too many people as well. Heroic narratives of American innovation sound like legends from a mythic past, and a lot of Americans have internalized Obama’s narrative that America just isn’t capable of such things any more. Tangible benefits and guarantees of legislated safety mean more to people who are just trying to make ends meet.
It’s not easy to reach people who feel that way, when the dire consequences of remaining on the “road to Greece” remain abstractions. (And there’s not much chance those consequences will become too painful to ignore just in time for a presidential election.) It’s true that writing off large classes of people as hapless dependents is not the right way to do it. We can hope for much better from the energetic young Republican leaders approaching the starting line Mitt Romney drew on his way out of public life.