No, Romney didn't just lose the election

I got home late last night and missed most of the hysteria over Mitt Romney’s remarks at a fundraiser in May, but I’m glad to see I didn’t miss all of it.  Here’s Josh Barro at Bloomberg, telling us we can take a 50-day nap, because the election is all over now that Romney has described 47% of voters as victims:

You can mark my prediction now: A secret recording from a closed-door Mitt Romney fundraiser, released today by David Corn at Mother Jones, has killed Mitt Romney’s campaign for president.

On the tape, Romney explains that his electoral strategy involves writing off nearly half the country as unmoveable Obama voters. As Romney explains, 47 percent of Americans “believe that they are victims.” He laments: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

So what’s the upshot? “My job is not to worry about those people,” he says. He also notes, describing President Obama’s base, “These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax.”

This is an utter disaster for Romney.

I’m not going to argue that it’s good for Romney.  This is what comes from candidates attempting to become political analysts on the campaign trail.  Newt Gingrich made this same mistake during the primaries, and it caused him headaches as well.  Candidates need to stick to their message, and shrug off questions about strategy; that’s for staffers to leak to the media.  When candidates forget that, they end up producing sound bites that sound like this, or like Howard Dean’s reality-defying 2004 “Yeargh!” moment in Iowa.

But if quips won elections, I have dozens more damaging in the Obamateurism series than this. This one is hardly fatal, at least in part because Romney is actually on solid ground in terms of the math, as the Daily Beast pointed out last night:

Jim Messina, Obama campaign manager, called the statement “shocking” and “disdainful.” Gail Gitcho, Romney communication director, said that it showed that the former governor really is “concerned about the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government.” But ham-handed, principled, offensive, or otherwise, Romney’s words were clearly one thing: true. Here are the facts.

According to the Tax Policy Center, a partnership of the liberal Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, 46.4 percent of American filers pay “zero or negative” income tax. …

Paying no income tax is one thing. Being “dependent on government” is another. But under a broad definition of government dependence—that is, receiving federal entitlements—more than 47 percent of us are in Romney’s category. According to the Census Bureau, 49 percent of Americans live in a household that receives a government entitlement for “health care” through Medicaid or Medicare, “food” through stamps, disability, Social Security, or a “housing” assistance program. Most of these benefits are not paid for by their recipients, but by federal deficits. The gap between promises and anticipated funds for Social Security is $8.6 trillion for the next 75 years, according to the government’s own estimates (PDF). For Medicare, it’s $27 trillion.

Of course, sometimes perception outruns facts, and the perception of Romney as out of touch with the working class has already been advanced by Team Obama.  The problem with the whole “the election is over” analysis is that it defies history — and recent history at that.  Almost exactly four years earlier, in another fundraiser secretly taped by an attendee, a major-party nominee made the same mistake as Romney and offered some political analysis of why large numbers of voters were probably unreachable in an election.  The nominee — some also-ran named Barack Obama — told his urbane San Francisco crowd of supporters that people in the hinterlands were xenophobic and clung bitterly to their religion and guns in hard times, and would be difficult to win over.  In fact, Obama made oblique references to that argument prior to that tape, occasionally talking about the handicap of having a “funny name” would be with some voters.

That is almost exactly the same kind of argument Romney made, only in the context of government assistance.  How’d that work out for Obama?  Not too bad, as I recall.

This instant-toast analysis is the product of a media with too much pressure to be profound and not enough perspective to resist it.  We like to think that one utterance can decide elections, but it’s really not the case.  For instance, pundits will talk about how Jimmy Carter’s decision to cite his teenage daughter as an expert in a response to a debate question on the biggest issue facing the world lost him the election, but it was the Iran hostage crisis and massive stagflation that made Carter a one-term President.  His predecessor was supposedly set to win until he asserted in a debate that Poland wasn’t under Soviet domination, but Gerald Ford lost that election when he pardoned Richard Nixon two years earlier; after Watergate and the pardon, Republicans weren’t going to keep the White House.  Similarly, we like to think that John McCain lost the election in 2008 when he announced that he would suspend his campaign to return to Washington in the wake of the economic collapse, but after eight years of George Bush, war fatigue, and the economic collapse itself, the likelihood of any Republican winning that election looks close to nil in retrospect.  And perhaps the election of the least-experienced executive in modern American presidential history that year bears that analysis out, too.

In the end, the American people will decide this election not on quips but on records and policy, as they always have.