Tax Analysts Blog

Romney Cared About the 47 Percent Because He Cared About Deficits

Posted on Mar 10, 2016

Mitt Romney is in the news a lot for a man not running for president. The 2012 GOP nominee and former Massachusetts governor has attempted to make himself the face of the #NeverTrump movement. He made a blistering speech attacking Donald Trump and recorded robocalls for several candidates urging voters to unite against the Republican front-runner. Trump has responded by reminding voters (and the media) of Romney's failure to win in 2012 and the governor's numerous gaffes, including his infamous remark about how 47 percent of voters would never support Republicans. That particular gaffe highlights an important difference between 2012 and 2016, at least for Republicans.

Romney's attack on the 47 percent of taxpayers who don't pay income taxes did not come out of left field. Many Tea Party candidates, including Sarah Palin, had attacked that same group. There was some belief that everyone should pay at least some income taxes, so that voters could be reminded of the cost of government spending. If everyone has skin in the game, it would be easier to make a case for spending cuts. If you aren't paying for that additional spending, why would you back GOP candidates who want to slash it?

Like former Ways and Means Chair Dave Camp, Romney wanted a tax reform plan that was revenue neutral, but also accomplished Republican goals of cutting rates (particularly corporate tax rates). He wanted to highlight President Obama's irresponsible handling of the federal deficit and show that Republicans could improve the tax system, and even cut many people's taxes, by spreading the burden around. That isn't actually what Romney's plan did (his plan probably wouldn't have increased the percentage of people paying income taxes and it might have raised taxes on middle-income taxpayers), but he at least paid a great deal of lip service to the idea of not adding to the deficit.

The Republican candidates of 2016 don't care about the deficit. Sen. Ted Cruz's plan might lose up to $19 trillion over 10 years. Sen. Marco Rubio would add $6.8 trillion to the debt over that same period. Trump is no better. His proposals might cost $9.5 trillion. Clearly no one among this group is struggling with revenue raisers the way Camp and Romney did.

Not caring about deficits has allowed today's candidates to not sweat over the 47 percent. Trump, Cruz, and Rubio want even fewer people to pay income taxes. This has fit with the Trump and Cruz populist themes (particularly Trump's appeal to those very angry about the state of government and the economy). The presidential candidates aren't alone in their newfound embrace of the 47 percent. House Speaker Paul Ryan is a major proponent of an expanded child credit, and other lawmakers have made more of an effort to emphasize the benefits of GOP tax policy to lower-income citizens.

Trump has made no secret of his disdain for Romney's campaign. And Romney's 47 percent remark did much more harm than good. But the context of the former governor's speech should be remembered. Unlike 2016's candidates, Romney was trying to push economic and tax policy that didn't add too much to the national debt, and made Democrats seem financially irresponsible. He also was trying to emulate Camp and draft a plan that at least had some chance of passing Congress.


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