Frustrated conservatives have a theory for why their ideas didn’t win more support on Election Day: They can’t compete with the offer of “free stuff.”
As this argument goes, President Obama and the Democrats won by promising their constituencies government goodies, but without asking those constituencies to pay for them. Women got free birth control. Latinos got more open immigration policy. The poor got food stamps. Tons of people got subsidized health insurance. And so on.
It’s basically another version of the 47 percent argument—i.e., that 47 percent of the country is dependent on the rest of the taxpaying public. It was kicking around in conservative circles even before Mitt Romney invoked it at that now-infamous Florida fundraiser. And judging by recent commentary, it’s going to keep kicking around for a while longer. Last week, National Review’s Kevin Williamson concluded that “offering Americans a check is a more fruitful political strategy than offering them the opportunity to take control of and responsibility for their own lives.” Just today, Washington Post conservative writer Jennifer Rubin wrote that the Democratic Party won by “feeding its base cotton candy.”
It’s true that Americans, on the whole, are more enthusiastic about receiving public services than they are about paying for them. They always have been. And it creates real policy dilemmas, particularly as an aging population makes services more expensive. Do we scale back these programs or raise taxes to pay for them? Do we trust the marketplace to find efficiencies, or turn to the government? Conservatives need to be more forthright than they have been about their proposed answers to these questions: We can’t cut Medicaid by a third, as Paul Ryan proposed to do, without seriously harming low-income people. But liberals also need to confront some unpleasant realities. Over the long run, we can’t sustain the current level of benefits without asking the middle class to pay at least a little more in taxes.
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But sometimes the argument about free stuff has a more insidious meaning—and you don’t have to strain to hear it. During the Fox News broadcast on Election Night, Bill O’Reilly declared, “It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.” In case the reference to “traditional America” was too subtle, O’Reilly went on to talk about Obama’s strong support among blacks, Latinos, and women.
And O’Reilly was simply saying the same thing plenty of other conservatives and Republicans had been saying, not least among them Romney himself. Months ago, after giving a highly touted speech to an African-American audience, Romney told a smaller audience of supporters he’d gotten a chilly reception because he’d said that, unlike Obama, he wouldn’t be giving out free stuff. We can debate whether Romney and others invoking the same line were tapping into racial stereotypes, consciously or subconsciously. But the idea that conscientious, hard-working “makers” were subsidizing shifty, lazy “takers” was—and obviously still is—an article of faith for many on the right.
It also rests on some gross misconceptions about policy. As Paul Waldman writes at the American Prospect, “Lots and lots of Americans, including most of those whom Republicans deem morally worthy, get plenty of stuff from the government.” That's true of government programs, like Medicare, and it's true of subsidies in the tax code, like the home interest mortgage deduction. But the wealthy, it turns out, frequently give back a lower proportion of income in taxes than members of the middle class do. “What exact ‘stuff’ do they think comes ‘free’ to people who pick lettuce, bus tables, clean their offices after they’ve left for the day, mulch their perennial beds?,” Michael Tomasky asks in his Daily Beast column.“The statistics tell us that a lot of these workers—I mean people who earn less than the median wage of $48,000—don’t get much free stuff at all. Many aren’t offered employer-sponsored insurance. Virtually all pay a higher share of their income in taxes than most millionaires, because even though some of them don’t pay income tax, the payroll tax socks them pretty good.”
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