It’s still unclear whether Mitt Romney will pay a price with the public for dismissing as moochers the 47 percent of the public that pays no federal income tax. And it’s unclear whether his own supporters in that cohort will admonish him for both caricaturing their ambition and describing them as reflexive Obama supporters.
But one thing couldn’t be more clear: This sort of reverse class warfare is nothing new in American politics. And this particular incarnation predates Romney himself by years.
The tensions between haves and have nots have been colored in the United States by a strand of upper class paranoia that the lower and middle classes, through sheer power in numbers, would use democratic means to redistribute wealth downward — to essentially vote themselves all the rich peoples’ money.
That’s fueled political fights bearing eerie resemblances to the one between Romney and Obama about the beleaguered 47 percent. In this 1972 Richard Nixon campaign ad attacking George McGovern, even the numbers are the same.
Just before the 2000 election a quote of disputed provenance began circulating on the Internet, then in its early adolescence.
“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”
In 2002, the Wall Street Journal published a now-infamous op-ed called “The Non-Taxpaying Class,” which described working class people with no effective federal income tax burden as “lucky duckies.”
The irony is that many of these “lucky duckies” paid no effective income tax because they qualified for targeted tax credits (like the Earned Income Tax Credit) proposed and signed into law by Republicans. But the unintended consequence of those tax credits, the Journal and other supply-siders fretted, is that when tens of millions of households pay no federal income tax, GOP arguments for across-the-board tax cuts lose their potency.
“While we would opt for a perfect world in which everybody paid far less in taxes, our increasingly two-tiered tax system is undermining the political consensus for cutting taxes at all.”
Weeks before President Obama defeated Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in the November 2008 landslide, McCain used Obama’s encounter with Sam “Joe The Plumber” Wurzelbacher in an ad attacking Obama for “rais[ing] taxes on seniors, hard-working families, to give welfare to those who pay none.”
At that point, the economy was in free fall.
In July 2009, the nonpartisan and respected Tax Policy Center determined that 47 percent — yes, again — would pay no income tax in 2009.
The conclusion was widely misunderstood and abused on cable news and talk radio. In April 2010, TPC’s Howard Gleckman felt compelled to set the record straight.
“Let me explain—repeat actually—what this means,” he wrote.
About half of taxpayers paid no federal income tax last year. It does not mean they paid no tax at all. Many shelled out Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. In fact, only 14 percent of Americans didn’t pay either income or payroll taxes. Some paid property taxes and, it is fair to say, just about all of them paid sales taxes of one kind or another. So to say they pay no taxes is flat wrong.
However, this class warfare-like rhetoric plays to a perception that the income tax is a chump tax: Only hard-working folks like us pay it. The welfare queens don’t. The super-rich don’t. It is a powerful emotional argument. It is also flat wrong…. [A]s you file your last-minute returns on Tax Day, keep in mind what really is going on with the now-famous 47 percent. It may not be quite what you think.
Moreover, as TPC’s Roberton Williams noted on Tuesday, the 47 percent figure is a temporary phenomenon of the Great Recession, driven largely by the depressed economy.
“It’s worth noting that the percentage has changed over time, rising and falling as the economy fluctuates and Congress enacts short-term stimulus tax cuts,” he wrote. “Looking forward, we project that the percentage will fall below 40 percent by the end of the decade, even if Congress makes the Bush-era tax cuts permanent.”
But in October 2011, when the GOP primaries were picking up and the Occupy movement had turned the nation’s attention to issues like income inequality and tax fairness, conservatives recognized the political peril of the moment and countered with the 47 percent figure.
Red State founder Erick Erickson devoted The 53 Tumblr to the 53 percent of Americans who supposedly carry the 47 on their backs. Republicans cited the statistic constantly.
In a late October speech at the Heritage Foundation, well before he became the vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan warned, “We’re coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society and that could become very dangerous if it sets in as a permanent condition.”
Appropriately, most of the Republican candidates, including Mitt Romney, proposed tax reform plans that would have effectively raised taxes on lower and middle class people, while cutting taxes for wealthy people dramatically.
By May, when he made his secretly videotaped remarks to donors, Romney had locked up the nomination and built a line of attack against Obama for wanting to shape the country to foster “equality of outcome” — effectively a massive cash transfer from wealthy and upper middle class people to the poorer half of society — rather than “equality of opportunity.”
That’s not quite the same as saying people who pay no income taxes have been lulled into a state of dependency. And it’s definitely not the same as claiming those people will all ultimately vote for Obama. But it has common philosophical roots.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.