Thomas Fitzgerald: Not his father's party

Mitt Romney's "47 percent" remark underscores his party's change over the last 45 years.
Mitt Romney's "47 percent" remark underscores his party's change over the last 45 years. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff)

Mitt Romney's approach is far different from the former Mich. governor's.

Posted: October 01, 2012

Advisers tried to talk him out of it. They said it was foolhardy for a Republican presidential candidate. Yet Michigan Gov. George Romney insisted in fall 1967 that he would visit the poorest neighborhoods in 17 cities.

"We must rouse ourselves from our comfort, pleasure, and preoccupations and listen to the voices from the ghetto," he said.

Forty-five years later, George Romney's son, Mitt, was captured on a video at a $50,000-a-plate fund-raiser saying he'd never win the votes of the 47 percent of Americans "who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them, who believe they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."

They don't even pay federal income taxes, for Pete's sake.

"My job is not to worry about those people," the 2012 GOP nominee said. "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility."

Those contrasting moments show how much the Republican Party has changed in the last half-century, stressing individual economic freedom and the power of markets more than traditional conservatism's focus on the civilizing effects of social institutions, including government (though the smaller and more decentralized the better).

To some, it seems the language of the modern GOP owes more to Dagny Taggart, the railroad-executive heroine of Any Rand's libertarian masterwork, Atlas Shrugged, with its language of producers and "looters," than to Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan.

Consider that in 1987, during Reagan's second term, 62 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement that government had a responsibility to help people who can't help themselves. Now, according to the Pew Research Center, 40 percent of them do.

Romney didn't apologize; he said he was not as articulate as he might have been but was merely describing fundamental philosophical differences between the two parties.

And a USA Today/Gallup poll found that Republicans liked the tough talk - though nearly 3 in 10 independents surveyed said the comments would make them less likely to vote for Romney, 53 percent said it would make no difference, and 15 percent said they were more inclined to back Romney.

The thing is, George Romney was one of the last of the so-called progressive Republicans, and he refused to support conservative Barry Goldwater when the Arizona senator was the party's presidential nominee in 1964. Four years later, the GOP kept moving rightward, as Richard Nixon aligned the party with disaffected Southern whites and stressed law and order.

The son has taken a more conservative tack. He espoused moderate positions on social issues such as abortion and gay rights when he challenged Sen. Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) in 1994. But when Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008, he presented himself as a conservative and lost in part because he was portrayed as a flip-flopper. This year, he had to assure the base to win the nomination, and some say he has been solicitous of the most conservative voters since.

For instance, he chose conservative icon Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House budget chairman, to be his running mate, passing over a pair with appeal to independents - Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty - favored by many advisers. After the convention, Romney peppered his economic message with rhetorical genuflections to the right - pledging, for instance to "keep God on our coins" and forever in his heart.

"I think generally, Romney has been plagued by . . . continuing to try and prove his conservative credentials, making it more difficult to win independent voters," Mark McKinnon, former adviser to President George W. Bush, told the Daily digital paper. "The leaked tape is just further evidence that he thinks in terms of dividing and conquering rather than uniting a coalition."

Meanwhile, the "47 percent" remarks fed a perception nurtured by President Obama's team of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy who doesn't have the interests of working people at heart. The president's campaign has been running an ad with the comment in Ohio, an industrial state.

The president himself chimed in Wednesday. "I don't believe we can get very far with leaders who write off half the nation as a bunch of victims," he said in Bowling Green, Ohio.

At the same time, after polls showed Obama leading in Ohio and Florida, Romney cut a new ad, speaking straight to the camera: "More Americans are living in poverty than when President Obama took office and 15 million more are on food stamps. President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families. The difference is my policies will make things better for them."

No word of plans to emulate his dad's poverty tour.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718, tfitzgerald@phillynews.com, or follow @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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