One of the supreme laws of Bipolarchy is tu quoque. Loosely translated, the Latin means, "you do it, too." A presumption of hypocrisy is meant to preempt criticism of any individual's mistakes or gaffes. Why get worked up over what the man from Party X did or said when the man from Party Y said or did this? It was inevitable, then, that following the emergence of a candid video recording of Mitt Romney addressing hoped-for donors some Republicans would want to travel back in time to 2008 in search of moral equivalence or, something worse Barack Obama said.
As the nation now knows, sometime this year -- the date, to my knowledge, hasn't been divulged yet -- Romney delivered an opinion that may go down as the fatal "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion" moment of his presidential campaign. In response to a question, he said, "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no
matter what. All right, there are
47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who
believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a
responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to
health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That, that's an
entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will
vote for this president no matter what." He added that "my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
To be fair, Romney clearly meant it was not his job as a candidate to worry about them, since his position then and now is that is policies will benefit those people whether they like them or not. Nevertheless, the outrage Democrats and their sympathizers feel over Romney's remarks seems fairly justified. There's a contempt in his unguarded language here, especially in the bitter emphasis he places on the word entitlement. There's a sense that the 47% are hopeless if not irredeemable, and that if Romney can make their lives better, it'll be in spite of themselves.
Romney has been lambasted by several prominent Republican opinionators, some of whom note the paradoxical fact that many Republican voters are in a condition of dependence upon government, yet are not the uncritically grateful thralls Romney describes. But while that minority criticizes the candidate's manner or his choice of words, and a smaller number actually applaud both, finding the sentiments the closest Romney has come to their own, the instinctual impulse is to recall when President Obama might have insulted a lot of people. Republicans didn't have to look far, for they've never forgiven Obama for the remarks made public in April 2008, while he was still contending for the Democratic nomination against then-Senator Clinton.
Which words are worse is inevitably a matter of perspective. Jonah Goldberg, a Republican, still finds Obama's remarks "far more offensive" while finding plenty to criticize in Romney's, while Joe Klein, presumably a Democrat, finds Romney's comments "far worse," though he notes that both men were "playing to the prejudices of their funders." Prejudices aside, an objective standard for determining whether candid remarks are impolitic or not should be available. To be objective, let's leave aside the questions of whether it's worse to cling to guns and religion or to claim entitlements from government, or whether it's worse to accuse people of reactionary clinging or an entitlement mentality. Putting those aside, two distinctions stand out. First, Obama contextualizes his difficulty in a way Romney doesn't. That is, the Democrat's whole point is to explain, and not without sympathy, why people seem unreasonably hostile to his proposals or his candidacy in general. Romney attempts nothing of the sort; the implication of his comments -- as inferred by an admittedly hostile hearer -- is that the 47% who reject him unconditionally have some character flaw, possibly innate, summed up in their sense of entitlement. Romney doesn't care to speculate about why the 47% insist on this; he creates the impression that there can be no good reason for anyone to hold those beliefs. Second, and perhaps more importantly, while I assumed earlier that Romney meant that he couldn't worry about getting votes from the 47%, not that he didn't ever have to worry about whether they survive, the idea of giving up on persuading a near-majority of the American electorate is something no politician should express. By comparison, Obama notes that he can't take for granted from demographics or economic statistics that any place will support him. He might expect that hard times would make people receptive to the change he promises, but often finds skepticism instead. Obama then wins this long-distance debate with Romney with eight simple words: "The important thing is that you show up." Even if the candidate finds people's attitudes irrational, he doesn't write them off. He doesn't presume that he doesn't have to "worry" about them. That doesn't prove anything about his policies, but it may prove something about the person, both personally and as a politician. Some in his own camp may wish that Obama didn't worry about people they've written off, but it seems more presidential, even in a mere candidate, to take the other approach. As for Romney, while for objectivity's sake I've tried to put the best spin possible on his statement, I can't blame anyone for inferring that, as President, he would worry about them no more than he does as a candidate. And as for the independents and undecideds Romney does worry about, I suspect that they'll see something wrong in his remarks just as I do, whether they identify themselves with the 47% or not. Nothing Barack Obama said in the past will change that.
Update: Rush Limbaugh seems to understand part of what's wrong with Romney's remarks. While the radio talker reaffirms his agreement with most of what Romney said about the "47%," he recognizes, and claims that Romney also recognizes, that the 47% can't be written off as Romney seems to do in the video. Limbaugh wants Romney to tell them that none of them have to be part of that group, in the course of "taking the gloves off" and "explaining conservatism." Limbaugh is trying to help Romney but in doing so he has to expose the worst aspect of the candidate's remarks. If Romney was speaking his own mind and not trying to pander to his donor audience, his belief is either that he doesn't need to do this explaining to the 47% until after he's elected, or that he doesn't owe them any explanations at all. While Limbaugh himself is among those most guilty of preaching to the choir, here's a rare moment when he's more practical, or at least more pragmatic, than the man whose lack of ideological rigidity he's so often criticized.