The narrative of the Romney campaign as portrayed by most major media last week has been one of a tone-deaf, elitist candidate. In a presidential race as tight as this one — the Gallup daily tracking poll Thursday showed the candidates tied at 47 percent — the media potentially can tip the balance for or against a candidate in a decisive way.
Most outlets ran with the stories suggesting Romney was describing 47 percent of American voters as government-dependent slackers who pay no taxes. In fact, Romney suggested nothing of the sort. The videotape of Romney's remarks received publicity after James Earl Carter IV — grandson of former president Jimmy Carter — promoted the tape through the left-wing magazine Mother Jones. It turns out, the version of the tape available via Mother Jones was edited, with important sections left out.
But even the edited version didn't justify the media feeding frenzy it provoked. Romney did not say 47 percent of Americans were freeloaders. What he did say was: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what." His words were simply a statement of fact. The electorate is polarized, with each party winning the loyal support of nearly half of the voters.
But the most controversial parts of his comments had to do with who makes up the 47 percent who are unconditionally in Obama's camp. It's important to note the context in which the statements were made. Romney was answering a direct question, which asked: "For the last three years, all everybody's been told is, 'Don't worry, we'll take care of you.' How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you've got to take care of yourself?"
His reply listed among the 47 percent who won't vote for him those "who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that 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."
But Democrats have been encouraging Americans to believe just that since the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. And President Obama reiterates it every time he has the chance. So why is Romney's repeating the Democratic mantra controversial? Isn't it logical to assume that those who support President Obama agree with him about the role of government in providing health care, housing, food stamps — you name it?
Romney has said his statement could have been made more elegantly. But inelegant or not, he was right; we are becoming a nation of people who depend on government. Nearly half of Americans pay no income tax — Romney suggested it was 47 percent, coincidentally the same percentage that support Obama. But even though many of these people contribute payroll taxes, income taxes are what pay for government spending outside Social Security and Medicare.
All Americans share the benefits of national security and other necessary government programs, but nearly half of them contribute little or nothing to pay for those programs. Democrats believe this is as it should be — we should just tax the rich more. But what does it say about a nation when half its population contributes so little to the protection and services they enjoy?
Of course not all those dependent on government subsidies are Democrats or Obama supporters. Seniors make up the biggest share of dependents. Most seniors feel that they've "earned" their Social Security checks and Medicare benefits. In fact, the majority of recipients will receive substantially more in benefits over their lifetimes than they contributed.
But Romney's larger point was that it's harder for candidates who want to talk about personal responsibility and smaller government to make headway when an increasing share of the population become recipients of government largesse. And it's harder still when the media distort what the candidates actually say and the context in which they say it. Romney summed up his answer by saying, "what I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center ... " He wasn't writing off half the country but outlining a strategy to win the election.
The media's attempt to twist Romney's statement moves them from being journalists to partisans. And in an election this close, media bias just could be the deciding factor.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.