If Romney responds to the Mother Jones story by backing off from his basic argument that far too many Americans are dependent upon the government and that this dependency skews their votes, he will weaken his campaign enormously. This audio revelation does not destroy his chance of winning in November, as over-excitable commentators have argued. There are inaccuracies in it, as Patrick Brennan points out, but the basic argument is reasonable. (If over-deterministic — many people receiving welfare and other forms of government aid dislike their situation and would much prefer to be self-reliant.) But Romney cannot make that and other arguments if he begins by withdrawing his remarks or, worse, by apologizing for them. An apology, moreover, would confirm the still-latent suspicion that he is unduly nervous and a flip-flopper.
What Romney should do is call a press conference, play the tape, and then announce that he stands by what he said. In the course of affirming his broad argument, he can correct the minor inaccuracies easily enough. (“My audience understood that, as I said, I was referring to income tax, but of course working Americans pay payroll taxes and all Americans pay indirect taxes on the goods they buy.”) Having established that he is not backing off, Romney can make the following points in short order:
1. Americans pay so many taxes that it’s hard to list them all. But here’s a partial list. [Unrolling a chart at this point might help.]
2. We pay so many taxes that we sometimes forget how many and how much, as I briefly did. It will be my job in the next seven weeks to remind Americans just how many and how much. [Unroll another chart at this point.] So this has been a good wake-up call for me.
3. Many people receiving benefits are getting back from the government some or all of what they paid in through hidden taxes. But government takes a heavy service charge from us when it circulates our money back and forth to us. [Picture of one of those GSA parties at this point.]
4. Those voters who pull the Democratic lever because of what the government gives them are not just being bribed, they’re being bribed with their own money. Don’t be a sucker — especially not a two-time sucker.
5. Most people receiving tax-funded benefits are the victims of excess government (point 4) or of the Obama economy and large-scale long-term unemployment. What they want is not a life on the dole but a chance to get a decent job to support their families. Excess government threatens that chance — and Obama believes in excess government.
6. The Republican party and I stand for an economy that will generate more jobs, more opportunities, and more prosperity.
7. Are there some Americans who have become so discouraged in the Obama economy that they have given up and resigned themselves to a life of dependency on government? Yes, there are some — not 47 percent, but some. Will they vote for me? Some will because they prefer opportunity to dependency, but maybe not too many. But I make them a promise now all the same: As president, I will work hard to craft a welfare policy that brings them back into the mainstream of society and enables them to live the best lives of which they are capable.
8. So make up your mind: Do you want an America on welfare or an America at work? Because that’s the choice.
Romney should then leave without taking questions, perhaps issuing a detailed statement of these points later.
Okay, this is a back-of-the-envelope response that probably contains as many flaws as it does bright ideas. But the point is that such a response would mean that Romney was taking charge of the debate and focusing it on the very issues that he needs and doubtless wants to emphasize. This is an opportunity for him to show his mettle — and to demonstrate to the eager critics that no one is finished until he thinks he is.