The Romney-Ryan campaign has been caught playing fast and loose with the facts. Now, Mr. 47 percent is in trouble for getting the facts right — but drawing all the wrong conclusions.
Many responded with disbelief to the Romney video in which he spoke disparagingly of the 47 percent of American households that don't pay a federal income tax. It's a surprising number. It appears to indicate something is really wrong with our country.
Now, the actual number is 46.4 percent (should be rounded down, not up, but we'll give Romney the 0.1 percent benefit of the doubt). But the number is meaningless out of context.
It was the GOP presidential hopeful himself who suggested this number meant that half of our population are government dependents — and with that, the implication that they are selfish freeloaders with no work ethic.
Quickly, the numbers were parsed and we learned more than 28 percent percent of American households contribute to the federal budget in the form of payroll taxes, but don't owe a federal income tax beyond that; and another 10 percent are elderly Americans with no income. Of the remainder, the vast majority — nearly 7 percent of American households — earn less than $20,000 each year.
A large number that does not pay federal income tax? Sure. Freeloaders? Moochers? Dependents? Hardly.
There's nothing wrong with quoting that number — but think about the other conclusions that could be drawn. If more than a quarter of our households are working at jobs that leave them so little they don't owe federal taxes, that means that our working families are struggling.
If nearly 7 percent of our population earns under $20,000, we need to look at the types of jobs that are available — and figure out how to make sure Americans have the education and skills to fill good jobs that offer a living wage.
In short, you could speak about that number with compassion rather than use it for division. You could use it as a jumping off point to discuss improving the lives of all Americans, not as an argument for dismissing half the population.
The Romney quote was widely compared to then-candidate Obama's comments about Pennsylvanians "clinging to guns or religion," an "inelegant" (to use Romney's word) — or insensitive — observation about people facing hard times. Those words did treat some Americans as "other," and did condescend about their motives. But it did so ultimately with the aim of understanding their perspective addressing economic uncertainty they were facing.
It was a foolish comment Obama made, but it was made with the aim of inclusion. And as president, he has not rallied against guns or religion, hasn't written off large parts of the country, hasn't selected only one kind of American for relief, support and encouragement.
Romney has hoped to divide and conquer, but all he's doing is driving a wedge between him and most working Americans, and from the majority view of people likely to vote Republican this year — people who know that paying no federal income tax doesn't equate to being a dependent.
Romney's facts were right. But what he does with those facts was even more revealing than what he does with his fictions.