Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney was already in trouble. A Politico tell-all about missteps within the campaign followed closely on the heels of Obama’s post-convention high. Critics dubbed his attack on the president’s response to the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens as crude political opportunism. Statistics wiz kid Nate Silver went so far as to hand Obama a 77% chance of winning re-election.
And then there was the donor dinner video and his misgivings about the 47% it revealed.
Aside from cementing Obama’s tenuous lead (Silver now puts Obama’s chances at above 80%), the ‘47% gaffe’ also proved unexpectedly useful, if vexing, for conservatives. It opened the conservative floodgates, unleashing a torrent of broader frustration with the Romney campaign: from Bill Kristol’s oft-quoted charge of ‘arrogant and stupid’ to much ruder words from Andrew Sullivan.
Most people dissecting Romney’s comments agree on two things: first, that the ‘47%’ sentiment points to some truth – nearly half of the country does not, in fact, pay income taxes – and second, that Romney got it wrong regarding the demographic makeup of that 47%. Because of the latter, most people find the remarks foolish and damaging.
But more importantly, this frustration provided conservatives the opportunity to articulate their ideology with specifics – and point out where, they think, Romney is going wrong. The varied interpretations of the comments showcase the rainbow of conservatisms within the American Right.
On the libertarian side, Matt Welch reminds us that Romney’s logic is hardly heresy within the GOP; but, he argues that
this is economic determinism at its worst, going against the very message the Republican Party was trying to sell to the world during its quadrennial national convention last month. …What the 53/47 dividing line says, to the direct contrary, is that income status is a permanent political condition, defrocking all Americans of agency and independent thought.
Welch signals the contradiction between the classically liberal roots of the American dream narrative, and the deterministic maker/taker worldview that, ironically, smacks of the language of class warfare. Similarly attacking the ‘maker/moocher’ split, but pinning fault on individualism rather than determinism, David Brooks takes on the mantle of Burke and writes,
The Republican Party, and apparently Mitt Romney, too, has shifted over toward a much more hyper-individualistic and atomistic social view — from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers.
Brooks’s accusation that traditional Republican principles have been corrupted in favour of libertarian ones harkens back to the conservative values of community and custom, defended by the likes of Burke and Russell Kirk.
Still, not all Republicans have found a contradiction between Romney’s comments and the principles of conservatism. Ironically, despite the elitist flavour of Romney’s comment, the populist strand of the Republican Party rushed to his defence. Glenn Beck railed that the media’s emphasis on the 47% comment was merely a distraction from ‘real’ scandals. Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips wrote in an open letter to Mitt Romney asking to say it more:
Why the hell aren’t you doing that on the stump? The most damning part of that video was not the comments about the 47% who receive government benefits. The most damning part of that video was your comment about moving to the middle to play for the 10% who are in the middle.
Whatever the substance of Tea Party conservatism – religion; economic and constitutional conservatism; a moral crusade; or as Mark Lilla suggests, the simple demand of ‘leave us alone’ – the 47% argument clearly resonates with them. The National Review’s Michael Walsh wrote that Romney, finally, ‘sounded remarkably like…a real conservative’.
What ‘a real conservative’ means is unclear. Irwin Seltzer at the Weekly Standard lamented the dissent among the Republican ranks, arguing that Romney’s blunder
was an expression of a belief so deeply held, and so thoroughly validated in the circles in which Romney travels, that it required no fact-checking’ […] It is probably too much to hope for that Romney will reconnect with conservative principles.
The pied conservative response exposes the lack of unity at the heart of the American Right, a charge usually leveled at American liberalism. The Republican Party is an ideological mix of social and fiscal conservatives once held together by eloquent intellectuals such as Bill Buckley; gone are the days of the Eisenhower Republican; here to stay is the Reagan Republican jumble, with a few vestiges of traditional conservatism tacked on for good measure. This is a fusion of the not-necessarily-compatible visions of classical liberalism, Burkean conservatism, and populism. Conservative pundits are angry about the remarks, but the greater frustration is with Romney as a candidate – he is an empty vessel for a host of competing conservatisms. He has not even managed to achieve ideological coherence with his politically astute selection of Paul Ryan as VP, the current intellectual backbone of the party.
But at least the gaffe prompts a more honest discussion about the benefits of state services, and not more abstraction over the size of government. This means moving beyond the ‘moocher’ myth and looking at who profits most from government aid. Even in this debate Republicans don’t see eye to eye; but there is one thing they agree upon: the ‘47% gaffe’ hasn’t helped Romney’s chances.
Nadia Hilliard is a DPhil candidate in politics at Oxford.