In politics – especially Presidential politics – message reinforcement is a risky business. You hope that, if reminded often enough, the electorate gets and keeps an idea of your guy’s good qualities; there’s always a nagging fear they may grasp and hold and take to heart the negative stuff instead. This is Mitt Romney’s problem today.

David Corn has published video of Romney addressing a fundraising dinner. If you’re thinking this doesn’t sound promising news for the Romney people you’re correct. Here’s what Mitt told his benefactors:

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…These are people who pay no income tax.

[...] ‘[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.’

Heckuva job Mitt. On the scale of pretty bad to very bad this is awful. Watch the video and it becomes even worse. Concentrate on the emphasis Romney places on entitled and remember he’s talking about health care and food and housing and other things many people consider reasonably important.

As David Frum tweeted: If you’re not running for President of all the country, you won’t be elected President of any of it.

There are many things to be said about all this but one of them is that, in their craziness, Republicans appear to have convinced themselves that nearly half the country contributes nothing at all. It’s true – partly as a result of Republican tax policies – that many Americans pay no federal income tax. It is not true that these people do not pay tax. They pay payroll taxes (and, of course, state taxes). As Ramesh Ponnuru wrote last year:

The point of the payroll tax, for FDR, was to ensure that “no damn politician” could ever take away the benefits because (to paraphrase conservative author William Voegeli) all the damn voters would think they had earned those benefits through their payroll taxes. All federal taxes go to the federal government, and all federal spending comes from it: The rest is accounting, and accounting tricks. People who pay payroll taxes are funding the federal government, and conservatives who deny it are falling for a trap FDR set for them.

It follows that the conservative hostility to ‘refundable’ tax credits is mistaken. If a tax credit counts as a tax cut when it applies against income taxes, it counts as one when it applies against payroll taxes too. A particular credit may or may not represent sound policy, but that determination cannot turn on refundability.

It matters how we treat payroll taxes because, while fewer people pay income tax than did so in the Seventies, the burden of the payroll tax has gotten heavier. Count both the payroll and income tax and there is no trend toward lighter federal taxes on the lower-middle class. The Tax Policy Center has estimated tax rates over time for families of four who make half the median income. People at that income level in 1955 paid 2 percent of their income to the federal government and faced a 2 percent marginal tax rate on their next dollar earned. People at that income level in 2005 paid the federal government 4.2 percent of their income and faced a marginal rate of 38.7 percent.

Quite. (And actually eight of the ten states with the highest proportion of non-income tax payers voted Republican in 2008.)

So does this matter? Isn’t this Romney’s version of Barack Obama’s embarrassingly foolish 2008 comments about poor white folks who, being ‘bitter’, were ‘clinging’ to their guns and their god? That, you will remember, was what Obama told a fundraising dinner in, of all the places, San Francisco.

Yes and No. Yes because, like Obama, Romney has revealed what, deep down, he really thinks. No because, however foolish Obama’s comments were, they were to some small extent mitigated by his suggestion elite Democrats should at least try and understand these folks’ concerns. They may be dupes but their fears merit attention. Romney expresses no such empathy.

And empathy matters. Just as you can’t be any kind of decent historian without empathy or an attempt to understand how people in the past thought, so you can’t be a successful politician on the national level unless you have some measure of imagination, sympathy and empathy. Romney appears deficient in these matters.

I mean, really, when the best defence anyone has for Romney is that he – Willard Romney! – is pandering to his audience just a little bit too much you know matters have reached a pretty – that is, a pretty ghastly – pass.

Sure ‘my job is not to worry about those people’ is, in context, an admission Romney can’t reach everyone in an election campaign. By the time the Obamans have finished with him, however, it will be transformed into a promise that President Romney won’t worry about those people either. (It probably doesn’t help that Mitt’s tax plan is so generous to millionaires.)

This is the thing: when you’re already the Man from Bain you don’t need more things cropping up reinforcing the most damaging stereotypes your opponents use against you. And you really don’t need to reinforce those stereotypes yourself. A simple rule of thumb: when people fear you’re a vampire squid don’t encourage them to believe you really are a vampire squid.

Another simple thing: even when the electorate merit your contempt it’s not a good idea to make your contempt quite so plain.

And yet during this same fundraiser Romney offered a better, reasonable, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger approach. Responding to criticism that he wasn’t personalising the campaign sufficiently he told his donors:

We speak with voters across the country about their perceptions. Those people I told you — the five to six or seven percent that we have to bring onto our side — they all voted for Barack Obama four years ago. So, and by the way, when you say to them, “Do you think Barack Obama is a failure?” they overwhelmingly say no. They like him. But when you say, “Are you disappointed that his policies haven’t worked?” they say yes. And because they voted for him, they don’t want to be told that they were wrong, that he’s a bad guy, that he did bad things, that he’s corrupt. Those people that we have to get, they want to believe they did the right thing, but he just wasn’t up to the task. They love the phrase that he’s “over his head.” But if we’re – but we, but you see, you and I, we spend our day with Republicans. We spend our days with people who agree with us. And these people are people who voted for him and don’t agree with us. And so the things that animate us are not the things that animate them. And the best success I have at speaking with those people is saying, you know, the president has been a disappointment. He told you he’d keep unemployment below eight percent. Hasn’t been below eight percent since. Fifty percent of kids coming out of school can’t get a job. Fifty percent. Fifty percent of the kids in high school in our 50 largest cities won’t graduate from high school. What’re they gonna do? These are the kinds of things that I can say to that audience that they nod their head and say, “Yeah, I think you’re right.” What he’s going to do, by the way, is try and vilify me as someone who’s been successful, or who’s, you know, closed businesses or laid people off, and is an evil bad guy. And that may work.

That’s not so bad! Too bad no-one will remember that part of his speech. Many of these kids won’t be paying federal income tax, of course.

But, in the end, there’s no need for Obama to vilify Romney as “an evil bad guy” when he does such a good job of doing so himself.

Finally: if Obama does have 47 per cent of the vote locked-up I think – though I may be mistaken – Romney needs 96 per cent of the remaining 53 per cent of voters if he’s to get to 51 per cent of the popular vote. That seems a pretty stiff task. I wouldn’t quite say Romney is toast yet but the bread is in the toasting machine…

Tags: Americana, Barack Obama, GOP, International politics, Mitt Romney