Romney Faces Challenges as Republicans Criticize Stumbles

Mitt Romney at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles on Sept. 17, 2012. Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

September 20, 2012 (Bloomberg) – Republican Mitt Romney is being hit with criticism in his own party over the tone and direction of the election campaign with a narrowing window of time to regroup.

Even as Romney tried to transform his latest stumble into an attack on President Barack Obama, a series of national polls showed the incumbent’s lead growing, leaving some Republicans anxious about his prospects, uncomfortable with the management of his campaign and impatient for him to turn the contest around.

“He’s had two narratives over the last week and a half: one that says, ‘Is he compassionate?’; the other that says, ‘Is he competent?’,” Matthew Dowd, a Bloomberg analyst and former strategist for President George W. Bush, said on Bloomberg Television. “Both of those have created this opportunity for the president to reinforce a lead that he was already gaining.”

Less than 50 days before Election Day and less than two weeks before the first of three debates against Obama, Romney is still working to get his campaign back on track after the Sept. 17 release of a secretly recorded video of his remarks to donors in which he described 47 percent of Americans as government- dependent “victims” who don’t pay taxes and won’t vote for him.

“This is a campaign about the 100 percent,” he said last night when asked about that comment at a forum in Miami with the Spanish-language television network Univision. “Now I know that I’m not going to get 100 percent of the vote and my campaign will focus on those people we think we can bring in to support me, but this is a campaign about helping people who need help.”

Fundraising Focus

The appearance, broadcast only in Spanish, marked a break from a week dominated by fundraising, a schedule that left Romney ill-suited to manage the fallout from the video, recorded at a fundraiser in May. The former Massachusetts governor also held a rally in Miami last night, his first campaign event open to the public since the emergence of the recording.

Under pressure from Republicans to spend more time campaigning, Romney aides were considering adding stops in Colorado and Ohio to a schedule that planned to have the candidate spending much of the weekend at his beachside home in La Jolla, California.

The tape surfaced about a week after Romney drew bipartisan criticism for attacking the Obama administration’s response to protests in the Middle East that caused the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, including the U.S. ambassador there.

Unemployment Rate

Obama faces his own challenges, with U.S. unemployment having stayed above 8 percent for 43 consecutive months. Presidential campaigns also can be transformed in a day, and the debates next month will provide Romney with an opportunity to rebound.

Republican and Democratic leaders continue to expect a close race, and Romney is working to pivot back to his economic message and a campaign focused on hammering Obama’s record. Speaking to donors in Atlanta yesterday, Romney reframed the controversy as a broader political debate over the role of government.

“The question in this campaign is not who cares about the poor and the middle class,” he said, adding that both he and Obama share that feeling. “The question is who can help the middle class. I can, he can’t.”

‘Redistribution’ Issue

Romney and the Republican Party also are trying to draw attention to another tape — newly released audio of a talk Obama gave 14 years ago at a Loyola University conference in Chicago in which he said he supported “redistribution,” to “make sure everybody’s got a shot.” Obama was an Illinois state senator at the time.

“He really believes in what I’ll call a government- centered society,” Romney said in Atlanta.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called the president’s 1998 comments “outrageous” in a conference call with reporters yesterday. He said of Obama: “His agenda is an agenda of dependency, not of opportunity, and certainly not of job creation.”

If the election were held today, Priebus said, “I think we would win.”

Some recent polls indicate a distinct shift against Romney nationally and in swing states at a critical point.

Pew Poll

A survey conducted Sept. 12-16, before the videotape from May surfaced, by the Pew Research Center put Obama ahead of Romney 51 percent to 43 percent among likely voters. That’s the largest advantage in September the survey has shown for any presidential nominee among likely voters since 1996, when President Bill Clinton led Republican challenger Bob Dole, 50 percent to 38 percent.

Polling figures released yesterday by Gallup showed that Americans have a more negative than positive reaction to Romney’s videotaped comments, with 36 percent saying the remarks make them less likely to vote for him. Twenty percent said the remarks make them more likely to vote for him, and 43 percent said the comments won’t make a difference.

The Gallup tracking poll covering the Sept. 12-18 period showed Obama with just a one-point lead, 47 percent to 46 percent.

State Results

State surveys by CBS News/New York Times (NYT)/Quinnipiac University gave Obama the lead in Virginia and Wisconsin, home state of the Republican vice presidential nominee, Representative Paul Ryan. Obama and Romney were in a statistical tie in Colorado in the polls conducted between Sept. 11 and 17.

Polling by Fox News released yesterday showed Obama with leads ranging from five points to seven points among likely voters in Ohio, Virginia and Florida.

The wave of data heightened concerns among Republicans about Romney’s chances, with some in tight re-election races distancing themselves from his “47 percent” remarks, others offering counsel to his campaign and still others avoiding questions. Senate Republican leaders uncharacteristically ended their weekly media availability at the Capitol yesterday without responding to questions from reporters, who shouted repeated queries about the videotape flap.

Republican Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, declined to endorse Romney’s characterization of 47 percent of Americans as feeling victimized. “The campaigns are sorting that issue out; I’ll let them do that,” he said.

Not all Republican lawmakers were quite as restrained in their criticism of Romney.

Every Vote

“I just don’t view the world the same way he does,” Nevada Senator Dean Heller, who polls show faces a close race in November, told reporters yesterday. “Every vote in Nevada counts, every vote.”

Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown, who is running for re-election in a close race against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard University professor, used Romney’s comment to play up his blue-collar roots.

“My mom got public assistance for a short period of time, so I don’t think anybody is on public assistance because they want to be,” he told reporters. “They want jobs.”

Pressed on whether he still supports Romney’s campaign, Brown said that, while he didn’t agree with the Republican nominee on everything, “that’s what being an independent senator is about.”

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said Romney should leave fundraising to others, such as his wife, Ann Romney, and spend more time in swing states.

“What Romney needs to do is get into Virginia and run for sheriff,” Graham said. “This is not rocket science.”

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What Mitt Romney Got Wrong About the 47 Percent

Mitt Romney’s videotaped remark to wealthy supporters that 47 percent of Americans “believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name it” and that “my job is not to worry about” people who won’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives” was pretty stunning any way you look at it.

It cements the impression of Romney as someone who cares only for the rich. It shows a contempt for others who had previously existed only in Democratic attack ads. It writes off half the nation. And it diminishes and undermines the substantial tradition of conservatives who do care about helping the less-fortunate. In this way, Romney’s self-revelation illuminates a troubling shift within the Republican Party that he has now come to embody.

First, some context: It’s true that 47 percent of workers paid no federal income tax in 2010. But Romney is wrong to imply they didn’t pay any taxes. Most paid Social Security, sales, payroll, and property taxes. Many paid a higher percentage of their income than Romney did. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that only about 10 percent paid no federal tax at all, and most of those were retirees.

Regardless, the 47 percent figure has become an angry rallying cry for the sort of aggrieved conservatives who listen to a lot of talk radio. They decry parasites and self-anointed “victims”—as Romney sees them—who are evidently unworthy of attention or respect, even from a guy willing to cost himself plenty of the latter in his quest for votes.

An obvious reason why fewer people are paying federal income tax is because so many are unemployed (and not by choice). That will change when the economy recovers. But another big reason is that the income tax has been an important vehicle for the social policies of both parties—including successful, bipartisan efforts to address the very problem of dependency that Romney is griping about in the video.

The best example of this is the Earned Income Tax Credit, an obscure wage subsidy for the working poor created in 1975 by Democratic Senator Russell Long of Louisiana, which gained prominence when President Ronald Reagan significantly expanded it as part of the 1986 tax reforms. The credit functions as an offset to income tax in order to offer an incentive to work. Conservatives liked that the EITC encouraged the poor to lift themselves out of poverty, rather than idly collect welfare. It reflected Reagan’s sunny message of opportunity and empowerment. At the time, the Wall Street Journal called it “the most important anti-poverty measure enacted over the past decade.”

Democrats liked that it helped the poor. Bill Clinton expanded the program during his presidency; by the late ’90s it was lifting 4.3 million people a year out of poverty. Today, around 26 million people get EITC benefits.

By design, the expansion of the EITC meant that fewer Americans would pay federal income tax. Given the obvious desirability of having more people working to support themselves, this wasn’t very controversial. In fact, a further reason the number fell is that Reagan’s 1986 reforms also raised the standard deductions and personal exemptions so that no family below the poverty line would have to pay federal income tax.

In the years since, many Republicans have stopped feeling that they have any duty to help those who are struggling. According to the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Republicans during Reagan’s second term agreed that government has a responsibility to help the less-fortunate; today, only 40 percent believe that. Ignoring the benefits of getting people working, many conservatives now cite the growing number of non-income-taxpayers as a justification for saddling them with a larger share of the tax burden (while cutting taxes for themselves).

Stop and think about that for a moment: A Reagan-endorsed program to encourage work and get people off the dole has been recast by Romney as part of a dependency-breeding culture of shiftless moochers. That isn’t just wrong or bad politics. It rejects the basic faith in Americans’ capacity for self-improvement that is supposed to lie at the heart of our national character.

Bloomberg