Mitt Romney sure is lucky that major media outlets exist to serve his interests. After a video came out on Monday afternoon in which Romney denigrates the nearly half the country that did not pay federal income taxes last year as irresponsible and entitled, it seemed he was in quite a political pickle. The comments were unlikely to endear him to swing voters who perceive Romney as an out-of-touch elitist. But since Romney got the idea that 47 percent of the country are lazy Democratic moochers from movement conservatives, he could not repudiate his own remarks.
At first, Fox News had no idea how to respond. They simply ignored the story, even as it dominated coverage on other networks, all through their primetime lineup on Monday. Finally, when Romney gave a press conference after 10 pm, in which he admitted to having made poor word choices but not a substantive error, they showed it. On Tuesday, the Fox Business network hosted Romney for a softball interview with Neil Cavuto. Fox was determined to avoid covering the story except to help Romney burnish his self-defense. Alas, Romney himself did not have much of a defense, other than to say that he had simply been acknowledging that he will not win a landslide victory.
But then, Providence struck. On Tuesday afternoon the Drudge Report released an audio recording from 1998 in which Barack Obama says, “I actually believe in redistribution.” Drudge splashed the phrase in a banner headline across his front page as if it were earth shattering news. Since then, according to Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone, Fox has played the audio clip twenty-two times.
The Romney campaign immediately seized on the clip as a way of shifting their defense of Romney’s unappealing rhetoric into more friendly terrain. Speaking to Cavuto, Romney said:
There is a tape that just came out today where the president is saying he likes redistribution. I disagree. I think a society based upon a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that’s the wrong course for America…. The right course for America is to create growth, create wealth, not to redistribute wealth.
Romney’s campaign sent out the quote as part of a press release. They followed up shortly with another press release that lists their usual litany of depressing economic indicators as proof that “Obama’s redistribution plan…didn’t work.” What is missing is any proof, besides a fourteen-year-old quote, that Obama actually pursued a redistribution plan once in office.
By Wednesday, the Romney campaign had regained its footing. Reporters were being inundated with statements using the redistribution quote as a hook for all their usual talking points. For example, they released a statement headlined, “Obama’s Redistribution Didn’t Work For Small Businesses.” “Mitt Romney understands that opportunity and free enterprise create jobs and grow our nation’s small businesses—not government redistribution,” said Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul. The campaign also worked the phrase into their stump speeches. Paul Ryan told a Virginia audience that, Obama is “going to try and distract and divide this country to win by default.” Then he asserted:
President Obama said that he believes in redistribution. Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth. Mitt Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth. Efforts that promote hard work and personal responsibility over government dependency are what have made this economy the envy of the world.
As Slates Dave Weigel points out, it is ridiculous to blame Obama for distracting and dividing the country, and then attack Obama for something he said fourteen years ago.
Conservative pundits, though, are cheering on the Romney/Ryan campaign’s silliness. After Romney’s appearance on Cavuto, Fox panelist and Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes said of the attack on Obama’s quote, “[It’s] good, [he should] make the argument. Going back to 1998 shows the president has believed this for a long time.” That’s a specious argument. If you go back to 1998 and look at anything Mitt Romney said, it may be diametrically opposed to what he believes today. Generally, the older the quote, the less relevant it is. Certainly that’s the standard Hayes would use if it were Romney who long ago said something Hayes considers damaging.
More importantly, Ryan’s statement creates two false dichotomies. Contra Ryan, redistribution can promote hard work instead of government dependency. A great example is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a wage subsidy for low-earning households. The purpose is to make menial jobs more financially attractive relative to being unemployed and eligible for welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. It was created with bipartisan support, and by all accounts it has worked well. It also happens to be one reason that so many low-income families do not pay any income taxes, the very state of affairs that Romney decried.
It is also wrong to assume that any wealth redistribution is the opposite of creating wealth. Reasonable people can differ on the optimal amount of redistribution to generate economic growth. But a glance at countries such as Denmark and Germany shows that high marginal tax rates, with the revenue going to strong educational and healthcare systems can develop a healthy, educated and therefore globally attractive workforce. That, in turn, can yield strong rates of economic growth.
The underlying complaint against Obama is bogus anyway. Drudge misleadingly cut the quote to create a false impression. As Jonathan Chait explains in New York magazine, if you read the full quote, you see that Obama is actually expressing a very moderate, neoliberal attitude. Obama actually said that some of the backlash against government has been deserved. To revive faith in collective action, Obama argues, government programs must be more efficient. “We do have to be innovative in thinking, what are the delivery systems that are actually effective.… because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody’s got a shot,” said Obama. This is not radical socialism. But then, neither is the Affordable Care Act, even though conservatives have labeled it as such. If Romney’s incompetent campaign did not have the conservative media to invent these myths, they would truly be lost.