Mitt Romney repudiates '47 percent' remarks. Why now?

This is the clearest mea culpa Mitt Romney has made since video surfaced of him telling donors at a fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans believe they're 'victims' entitled to government aid.

Michael Reilly/Daily News-Record/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets some of the 10,000 supporters as he takes the stage during a rally with his running mate Paul Ryan at the Augusta Expoland in Fishersville, Virginia, Oct. 4.

Mitt Romney is now repudiating his famous “47 percent” remarks. In an interview Thursday night on Fox News, the GOP presidential nominee told host Sean Hannity that those words were “just completely wrong.”

That’s the clearest mea culpa Mr. Romney’s made since Mother Jones published video of him telling donors at a Florida fundraiser that 47 percent of Americans believe they’re “victims” entitled to government aid. This 47 percent doesn’t pay income taxes, Romney added, and will never vote for him or take personal responsibility for their lives, so it’s not his job to care about them.

Previously, Romney said that he stood behind the remarks in general, but that they were “inelegantly stated.”

“Well, clearly in a campaign, with hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question-and-answer sessions, now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right,” Romney told Mr. Hannity on Thursday. “In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong.”

Why now? If he was going to apologize, why didn’t Romney do it the day the video was released, defusing its impact?

Now’s a better time, for one thing. In the wake of his strong debate performance Wednesday night, this reversal of course appears more prudent, even magnanimous. Prior to this, the Romney camp appeared to believe that saying “sorry” about anything was a sign of weakness, the kind of thing done by losing nominees like Sen. John McCain (R). Now, basking in good reviews from conservatives and the mainstream media alike, the former Massachusetts governor is apologizing from a stronger position.

Plus, the “47 percent” issue has damaged his campaign. As we’ve long noted, individual gaffes, misstatements, instances of umbrage, and so forth don’t generally correlate with movements in the polls. But it seems possible that this did. There’s evidence that President Obama gained a percentage point or more in the rolling averages of major polls following the Mother Jones video disclosure.

That may not seem huge, but considering the closeness of the race, one percentage point either way could be huge in November.

Also, Romney said the remarks were “completely wrong” because they are. No, we’re not going to engage in an argument about dependency and government programs. His words were just factually inaccurate. It’s true that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay income taxes, but it’s not true that 47 percent receive government aid, even if Social Security and Medicare recipients are included in the figure.

Plus, many people within that 47 percent do vote Republican. Southern white voters are reliably GOP, even if they’re on unemployment, for instance. Elderly Republicans collect Social Security checks just as elderly Democrats do.

The more difficult political question may be whether the “47 percent” stuff will continue to haunt Romney’s campaign, despite his apology. It’s possible that swing voters impressed by his debate performance will find his mea culpa reassuring. But it’s also certain that Mr. Obama will still put up ads running the fundraiser video, with little extra commentary except subtitles. Voters predisposed to see Romney as someone who favors the rich may find confirmation in those grainy clips.

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