Romney’s “givers and takers” moment

The remarks by the GOP nominee offer an echo of those made nearly a decade ago by his budget chief while governor

Mitt Romney’s intemperate remarks about the divide between givers and takers is now threatening to send his already teetering presidential campaign into a tailspin.  The secret video recording of remarks Romney made at a May fundraiser is the latest crisis for a campaign that can’t seem to stay on-message. But the essence of the argument Romney made is, in fact, remarkably similar to one put forward nearly a decade ago by his top budget aide when Romney was Massachusetts governor.   

Speaking to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce in 2003, Eric Kriss, a former Bain Capital partner of Romney’s who served as his secretary of administration and finance, said the “ratio between givers and takers” of social services in the state was out of kilter.  “Of course, all of us receive some benefits – like the roads and rails that brought us all here this morning. But we all know that some – most in this room probably – are net contributors, while others are net beneficiaries. The ratio between givers and takers turns out to be a critical variable of government,” Kriss, told the business crowd, according to a Boston Globe account of the speech.  

Kriss suggested that the decreasing ratio of “givers” to “takers” – he claimed it had gone from 9-to-1 when Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society programs of the mid-1960s to 3-to-1 today, “edging towards 2 to 1” at the state level – was becoming unsustainable. “The trends are unsettling,” Kriss said.

At the time, Romney tried to distance himself from Kriss’s comments. The Globe reported that Romney said his administration was “not going to change the responsibility of government to meet the needs of our citizens and fulfill its promise.” He went on to say: “I do recognize that particularly as our population ages, there will be many more people who will be beneficiaries of state and federal programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Many of those individuals have placed funds into those programs in the past and will be receiving back funds they placed in. That’s a feature that we have to recognize in our budgeting priorities and the work we do.”

Romney’s recent remarks to a roomful of Republican high rollers at a fundraiser in Boca Raton, Florida, echo in many ways those made by Kriss.  Romney said 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax and think they are entitled “to health care, to housing, to food, to you name it.” He added, “They will vote for this president no matter what,” and said, “my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

In a hastily called press availability last night, Romney said his comments were “not elegantly stated.” But he stood by what he said was his main point – that there are very different visions being offered by his campaign and President Obama’s. He said Obama favors a “government-centered society where government plays a larger and larger role,” while he is advocating a “free enterprise society where people are able to pursue their dreams.”

A number of observers have pointed out that the 47 percent of Americans paying no income tax includes – just as Romney acknowledged in his 2003 comments distancing himself from his budget aide’s remarks – many senior citizens who paid into Social Security for decades and are now receiving benefits they are entitled to.  Also, lower-income workers who pay no federal income tax still make payroll tax contributions.

Writing in this morning’s New York Times, David Brooks says Romney’s comment “suggests that he really doesn’t know much about the country he inhabits. Who are these freeloaders? Is it the Iraq war veteran who goes to the V.A.? Is it the student getting a loan to go to college? Is it the retiree on Social Security or Medicare?”

Brooks says the people receiving a disproportionate share of government spending aren’t “big-government lovers. They are Republicans. They are senior citizens. They are white men with high school degrees. As Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has noted, the people who have benefited from the entitlements explosion are middle-class workers, more so than the dependent poor.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The comments do obvious damage by making Romney appear to pit half the country against the other – with the group whose votes Romney says he is writing off including, incredibly, many of those he needs to retain as key parts of his base of support. Beyond that, however, the remarks once again raise questions about what Romney really believes.  The views he shared this spring with Florida donors suggest that his top budget aide’s comments nine years ago, which Romney tried to distance himself from, may in fact have been an unguarded moment of candor that offered an unfiltered peek into Romney’s actual thinking.

Homepage photo by Roger Barone and published under a Creative Commons license.