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The Gaffe Game

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Americans keep saying we want our politicians to level with us, tell us what they truly think, not just go down the familiar list of talking points, giving us the usual collection of platitudes and hoping to be all things to all people. But when a presidential candidate does come right out with it, and tell it with the bark off, we are shocked, shocked.

The chattering class calls such statements gaffes and never tires of repeating them for their shock value -- rather than ask whether there might be some truth, even disturbing truth, behind the comments. It's so much easier to dismiss all such statements as gaffes. Or just use them as fodder for partisan outrage.

As any observer of politics has been told, and may even have said, the more truth in such statements, the bigger the gaffe. Which brings us to this week's gaffe celebre -- a rambling, off-the-cuff talk that Mitt Romney made to some big givers months ago, and that now has become a video hit. To quote what he said verbatim:

"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.

"I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49 -- he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn't connect. He'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that's what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

As his remarks drew flak from all directions, Mitt Romney quickly acknowledged that his views were "not elegantly stated." Clumsily stated might have been a more accurate description. And at least on one point just plain wrong: Of course his job as president, even as a presidential candidate, is to convince all Americans, whether dependent on government or not, to take personal responsibility for our lives. The presidency of the United States is a bully pulpit, and a president ought to use it. A president is a preacher and a teacher, too, and a teacher needs to reach everyone in the classroom.

Like most political claims based on just one statistic drawn out of a world of them, that figure of 47 percent of Americans not paying income tax raises more questions than it addresses:

Does that 47 percent include all those who file income taxes but, for perfectly legitimate reasons, have no taxes to pay? What about those who draw Social Security or depend on Medicare, including its Bush Era insurance program for prescription drugs? Or those who draw military pensions? They're not drawing freebies; they may have paid for those "government" benefits all their working lives. They're called entitlements because people are entitled to them. Often enough, it's their own money they're claiming back.

What's more, even if 47 percent of Americans don't pay income taxes, they may pay other federal taxes -- like payroll taxes. For many reasons, that 47 percent figure is essentially irrelevant when it comes to debating what would be good tax policy, good economics or simple justice. It's more of a factoid than a fact.

Yet amidst all the sound and fury that Mitt Romney's comments have engendered, no one has doubted that his 47 percent figure is essentially correct. Almost half of Americans pay no income tax. And surely no one can argue that's healthy. In a democracy, every citizen ought to be a stakeholder, and Americans who pay no income tax don't have a sufficient stake in this country. Such an imbalance invites irresponsibility. So long as government is spending other people's money, why care about whether that money is well spent? Why not just get while the gettin's good?

Just as surely, no one -- including Mr. Romney -- is arguing that people with no income should pay income taxes. A concentration on that 47-percent figure obscures what ought to be the central question in this debate: not who is paying or not paying income taxes, but how to raise American incomes. And make all of us taxpayers.

When it comes to that central question in this presidential election, which candidate offers the best approach? A look at this president's record over the past three years -- and the rising unemployment rate he's presided over -- should be enough to answer that question.

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