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Why Romney Should Fight for the '47 Percent'

Why Romney Should Fight for the '47 Percent'

Mitt Romney’s remarks in May about the “47 percent” were, to my mind, unfortunate. 

Not as outrageous as Obama’s “bitter clingers” remarks in 2008 (at least Romney’s comments were based on fact and not prejudice), and not as unpresidential as Obama’s permanent campaign for the past four years against doctors, Cambridge police officers, “millionaires and billionaires,” etc. 

But Romney’s words were in poor taste, nonetheless.

(Update: Mother Jones has now admitted its video is missing “one to two minutes” at the critical juncture, which does not change the analysis here–Romney stands by his remarks–but certainly changes the context of the debate.)

The reason, as President Barack Obama cleverly and correctly pointed out, is that any president must be president of all the people. 

It’s not a standard Obama has lived up to–ever. But that is the standard, and Romney’s remarks fell short. 

I had hoped to see a bit more contrition in Romney’s response, even as other conservatives agreed widely with what he said, because that “47 percent” is why I am a conservative to begin with.

I was once a far-left liberal Democrat because I believe a core purpose of politics is to help the poorest among us–the “truly disadvantaged” in minority communities (Wilson), and the “least advantaged” (Rawls) in general. 

It was because I saw the failure of left-wing policies first-hand that I began to look elsewhere, and found in the politics of Tony Leon and Helen Zille, and the ideas of F.A. Hayek, alternatives that actually worked.

One of the reasons that Paul Ryan is such a great pick for Vice President is that he is exactly that kind of conservative. He was mentored by Jack Kemp, who not only built the ideological foundations of the Reagan revolution but made the poor inner cities a top priority. Kemp never gave up on anyone in the 47%. He understood that the ideas of free enterprise would set them free–and that many people secretly embraced them.

A brief story from my own campaign for Congress, which I lost but which energized conservatives in the Chicago area during the 2010 cycle. I held a rally for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at a predominantly black school in my district. The guest of honor was Hollywood star Vivica A. Fox. She was asked whether racism held her back in her career. 

Her answer: nothing holds me back, and nothing should hold you back, either.

The audience applauded her fundamentally conservative message, which is far from the “entitlement” mentality Romney described, even though–realistically–most of the people in that audience were in Obama’s dependable 47% of the electorate. 

Romney may not win their votes–which is the point he was apparently trying to make–but he has a duty, as a conservative, to reach out to them, not to write them off, either in public or private.

I understand the reason most conservatives are defending Romney’s remarks. He has touched upon something that all of us believe: that the country is dangerously close to a tipping point after which the majority of voters will have no stake in how public money is spent. It is a danger that political philosophers have warned us about for centuries, and which is a serious challenge to the constitutional and social foundations of our Republic.

But there are many patriots, too, among the 47%, who want to prevent that. 

Ironically, it has been Democrats who complained for years that many poor voters were more likely to vote Republican. They blamed social issues–hence Obama’s “bitter clingers” gaffe. 

But the reality is that many who may depend on government due to circumstances actually aspire to be independent, to join those who pay more in than they take out.

To close: an anecdote from the Democratic National Convention, or rather a 24-hour diner in Charlotte where I would retire for late-night coffee after a long day of covering speeches and floor fights. 

The waitress was a self-identified Clinton voter (both Bill and Hillary). She did not like Obama, but felt Romney did not understand her struggles. I did not ask how much she made, but she likely would have fallen into that 47% category.

Her number one issue? Illegal immigration. Not because she was a “bitter clinger”–she staunchly defended legal immigration, and it was clear that many of the customers she depended on were recent arrivals. 

No–she just wanted everyone to play by the same rules. She is working hard to make ends meet, and she wants everyone else to do the same. 

That’s a 47% voter that Romney and fellow conservatives write off at our peril.


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