Mitt Romney has boxed himself in. He needs to break out. Fortunately for him, there may be a way, but not from the path he's on.
Romney, of course, belongs to the party of Grover Norquist, the leader of Americans for Tax Reform who has never been shy about trying to exercise his influence on the single subject he holds dear: taxes. So successful has Norquist been that his position is the Republican Party's, which is this, simply put: Taxes are bad. Paying less of them is good. It will stimulate the economy.
So it's odd that Romney would take 47 percent of Americans to task for not paying the income taxes that so many of his brethren are themselves trying to decrease and/or dodge. He'll forgive Americans who are confused by the muddled message (taxes are bad ... until they're good ... for some?), who believe Romney doesn't get to have it both ways, who wonder about the motivations behind engaging in the very class warfare Republicans have accused Barack Obama of waging, if in reverse. This plays into the most unflattering narrative about the GOP ticket.
Agree or disagree with Romney's comments, there ought to be consensus that it was stupid politics. He was right about one thing: If you effectively call nearly half of Americans lazy and undeserving, they're not likely to vote for you. If he's counting on others to come through, well, 100 percent support from the remaining 53 percent isn't realistic, either. The one thing the Romney campaign needs to understand - and may not, judging by their behavior - is that he cannot accomplish anything if he doesn't get elected. That's his quandary. Taxes - his and those paid by others - have proven a lose-lose proposition for him. For his sake, and frankly for the nation's, he needs to change the subject.
The country has a quandary, too, and in it may be Romney's salvation. Among his sins here is that he created another diversion allowing us to avert our eyes from "the magnitude of the mess we're in," to steal a headline from the Sept. 17 Wall Street Journal. The story underneath detailed the depth of the spending and borrowing crisis in which we find ourselves.
Recently the national debt surpassed $16 trillion following unprecedented annual deficits of $1.4 trillion in 2009 (the Bush administration's final budget), $1.3 trillion in 2010, $1.3 trillion in 2011 and an expected $1.2 trillion this year. In just the last four years, the additional debt accumulated per U.S. household hit $55,000. Debt interest alone will top all other government appropriations within a decade, rising beyond what we currently spend on Social Security, defense, Medicare. When interest rates rise from their historic lows, it will cripple the federal budget, crowding out virtually all other services now provided by Washington. As it is, by 2014 the federal debt-to-GDP ratio - the red ink relative to the size of the economy, a critical number - will have doubled since 2008, to more than 80 percent, approaching a level not seen since a Depression-era America was embroiled in world war.
What's that mean for the average worker in the private sector? Congress won't be able to raise taxes high enough, for him or his employer, which imperils his job. Ultimately, we are at the precipice of "an economic ... and financial point of no return," the story's authors, all former federal officials in fiscal policy now affiliated with Stanford University, wrote. Even the nation's first Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, who very much believed in the ability of Uncle Sam to issue debt, particularly in times of crisis - it saved our behinds during the Civil War and World War II - "would have trouble preserving the full faith and credit of the United States."
It is utter folly to pretend we can keep doing what we're doing and spending what we're spending and everything will be OK. Romney should be addressing America's middle class instead of a room of well-heeled donors: How is the Obama status quo helping you? How does it help ensure Social Security and Medicare will be there when you need it? How does it protect national security? How does it help us invest in the future, in classrooms and infrastructure, the environment and medical research? How does it not bankrupt your children? Aren't you tired of working harder and longer than ever before and not getting ahead, including many of you in that 47 percent?
Instead Romney went all blame game, us vs. them. Instead he doubled down, dredging up an Obama quote from 14 years ago - "I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure everybody's got a shot" - which Americans were aware of in 2008 and still elected him. What makes Romney think that dog will hunt in 2012?
We need to get the national conversation back on track, perhaps with Romney ironically borrowing a page from Bill Clinton's playbook: "It's the economy, stupid." It's also jobs that pay a living wage. It's the spending. It's the fundamentally different way the two parties look at and approach all three.
The Romney apologists so desperately want this to be a case of liberal media bias against a conservative - it gets old - but it's really just a prejudice against amateur politics at the highest level. Don't believe this page. Trust those the Wall Street Journal who so very badly want Romney to win on Nov. 6, and who concluded in their editorial of Wednesday that if he can't get his act together soon, "he'll lose, and he'll deserve to." Just 43 days left. Tick, tock.
- Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.