Yesterday over 150 protesters were arrested outside the New York Stock Exchange on the 1-year anniversary of the founding of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Despite the large number of arrests in Manhattan, #occupy's first birthday was more notable nationwide for its relative quiet. It was just another Monday on the corner of La Salle and Jackson just in front of the Board of Trade, the former epicenter of Occupy Chicago, with neither a sign seen nor a drum heard. And while 150 demonstrators did march along Michigan Ave later in the afternoon, it was striking to see just how much the influence of occupy has waned.
When the occupy movement began last fall, I was convinced it would play a major role in determining the outcome of this fall's presidential election, especially if the GOP nominated Gov. Mitt Romney. During the Republican primary, Gov. Romney's opponents derided him for practicing "vulture capitalism" during his time as CEO of the private equity firm Bain Capital. Others pointed to his $200 million fortune, Swiss bank account, and his wife's dancing horse as further evidence that the former Governor of Massachusetts simply lived a life too privileged to develop empathy for the financial plight of ordinary Americans. As damning as these criticisms were in the context of the occupy movement’s class warfare narrative, the utter failure of the Obama Administration to improve the nation’s economy and job market have allowed Romney to endure an unprecedented barrage of attacks. With every awful jobs number Obama has to own, a Romney presidency becomes closer to reality.
As enthusiasm for occupy fades its ability to drive activist voters to the polls diminishes. Is there any coincidence that the liberal magazine Mother Jones symbolically chose yesterday, the anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests, to release a secretly recorded video of Mitt Romney - a man the Obama campaign has tried for months to paint as Mr. 1% - disparaging 47% of Americans as entitled non-income taxpaying dependents that "believe they are “victims” who are “entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it?" The Obama campaign immediately seized upon this video asserting, “Mitt Romney has disdainfully written off half of the nation.” Romney continues by stating that this 47% will vote for Obama, no matter what, because of their dependence on the many government payouts that subsidize their lives.
And so my job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the five to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon, in some cases, emotion, whether they like the guy or not . . .
At worst, his words will continue to feed the flames of a brewing class warfare that needs to be reconciled no matter who wins the presidency. At best Romney's argument was a little simplistic. According to the Tax Policy Center study Romney used to get his 47% figure, of the 46.4% of Americans who don't pay any federal income tax, 83% either pay payroll tax or are elderly. So while they may be not contributing a ton of tax revenue, it isn't as if these Americans are complete resource sucking leeches.
How damaging these comments end up being to Romney's presidential prospects remains to be seen. This morning liberal columnists are all but writing Romney's obituary after this 'fatal gaffe', while conservatives are cheering the comments as a sign of life in a campaign that has been listless since the convention. For my money, I highly doubt these comments will move the meter that drastically at all. Most voters are strongly set in their ways. While calling out half the country is probably not the best way to win a popularity contest, for the true swing voter I think this just reinforces how serious Romney is about entitlement reform. To the Romney campaign's credit they are going all in by not backing away from the comments. In the words of Romney's communication director Gail Gitcho,
Mitt Romney wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy. As the governor has made clear all year, he is concerned about the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government, including the record number of people who are on food stamps, nearly one in six Americans in poverty, and the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work.
Ultimately although this sound bite will probably be every bit as overplayed by the pro-Obama came as "you didn't built that," was by Romney's allies, it is not a game changer. With the race still neck and neck, the debates will have a signifcantly greater impact in deciding who wins the election than any individual soundbite. Unlike the occupy movement which clearly delinated the struggle as one pitting the 99% against the 1%, the 47% figure makes the battle lines hazier. After all, this is America, a place where 2/3 of the population identifies itself as middle-class and where 80% of people think they are better than average. For Americans at the margin of the 47%, a vote for Romney represents optimism that their lot will improve and that they will no longer need the safety net while a vote for Obama suggests a deep pessimism about their future prospects. Those who don't see their lives improving will vote for Obama, and rightly so, because they trust he will not pull the backstop out from behind them as Romney has pledged to do.
Americans, by nature, are not freeloaders and the vast majority of those dependent on government aid wish that they didn't have to be. Americans take pride in working hard for their money. Of those who are currently unemployed or underemployed most want nothing more than the opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. Americans are not fooled by falling unemployment rates caused by millions of people leaving the work force because for their family, friends, and neighbors this is not simply statistics but economic reality. Americans deserve a better economy than the one we have today. Continuing to blame the failed economic policies of George W. Bush when his own stimulus and bailouts have faltered is not a viable reelection strategy. To use a baseball analogy, imagine if 4 years from now Theo Epstein continues to blame Jim Hendry if the Cubs are still losing 100 games a year. There is no chance the Ricketts family would be extending his contract. Why should we tolerate failure in government when we don't tolerate it in sports?
The Complete Romney Video via Mother Jones