Scrambling to change the subject from his now infamous remarks calling 47 percent of the population “victims,” Mitt Romney has jumped on a newly uncovered (though actually very old) tape of then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama saying he believes in “redistribution” of wealth. Excerpts from the Obama tape first ran Wednesday on The Drudge Report – and at a fundraiser Wednesday in Atlanta, Mr. Romney went all-in on the attack:
"There are some who believe that if you simply take from some and give to others then we’ll all be better off. It’s known as redistribution. It’s never been a characteristic of America. There’s a tape that came out just a couple of days ago where the president said yes he believes in redistribution. I don’t. I believe the way to lift people and help people have higher incomes is not to take from some and give to others but to create wealth for all."
Let’s put aside the fact that the Obama tape is 14 years old – though, as The New Republic’s Timothy Noah points out, back then Romney was “still pro-choice, still pro-gun control, still pro-stem cell research, and still in favor of gays serving openly in the military.”
The real reason Romney’s attack is likely to be a flop is that the president’s remarks – when examined in full – aren’t likely to be seen by most Americans as particularly controversial. In fact, it's clear that Romney himself essentially agrees with much of what Mr. Obama said.
“I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution – because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level – to make sure that everybody's got a shot. How do we pool resources at the same time as we decentralize delivery systems in ways that both foster competition, can work in the marketplace, and can foster innovation at the local level and can be tailored to particular communities?”
First off, Obama’s statements about decentralizing delivery systems and fostering competition sound practically Republican (he was specifically criticizing the inefficiency of Chicago public housing and public schools). In context, he's actually arguing for a more streamlined system of government that employs free-market efficiencies and makes redistribution more effective – and by implication, more economical.
More to the point, however: In his attacks, Romney is treating “redistribution” in general as a dirty word – "He believes in redistribution. I don't" – when, in fact, it’s abundantly clear that Romney, too, supports redistribution, “at least at a certain level” (to use Obama’s own phrasing).
What would Romney call it when the government takes in tax dollars and uses them to pay for things like health care for poor folks? Is he saying he would eliminate Medicaid? We think not. Likewise, although Romney would tax the rich at a lower rate than Obama, his tax plan is still progressive.
As The New York Times’s David Firestone wrote Wednesday: “The government has long redistributed wealth, and … the country expects it to do so. That’s the point of a progressive income tax, which has been in effect for nearly a century…. The progressive tax remains so popular that Mr. Romney has promised to keep it, and he also insists he doesn’t plan to eliminate the safety net.”
Or as CNN’s Erin Burnett put it: “Mitt Romney, no matter what words he wants to use or what America he says he wants to believe in, believes in a progressive taxation system…. That is redistribution.”
Obviously, the real question – and a very legitimate one – is, how much redistribution is fair and best for society? In general, Democrats tend to want a little more, and Republicans tend to want a little less. But for Romney to pretend to be opposed to the entire concept of redistribution is totally untrue, based purely on what he himself says he would do as president.