Mitt underestimated the power of the 47 percent – his Trojan horse to the White House. There are far more government moochers than he ever imagined – and they will vote for him in droves, because they refuse to believe he was talking about them.
Growing up in Miami during the 1960s, I became acquainted with a not-so-secret subculture of the Art Deco district in South Miami Beach. Back then, it wasn’t the trendy, avant-garde playground of the rich and famous that emerged some two decades later, when it was transformed into the photogenic centerpiece of “Miami Vice.”
The South Beach of my youth was a crumbling ghetto where elderly widows came to live out their twilight years rummaging through Dumpsters and buying large quantities of bargain cat food – for cats that didn’t exist.
The store clerks and customers who waited in line as bag boys packed up dented 5-cent cans scavenged from the closeout bins, would nod and smile as the women nervously chattered about Fluffy and Mittens, waiting at home for their dinner.
Everyone knew there were no cats, but they went along with it, allowing the old women of South Beach the dignity of this charade that shielded the mortifying truth: The spoiled cat tuna was for them. It was all they could afford.
In another time, 85-year-old Marilyn Deming may well have been one of the cat-food-widows of South Beach. But today, the safety net for women who have the audacity to out-live their husbands is much better-constructed.
Deming enjoys a comfortable life in Sun City Center, a mecca for elderly middle-class Americans who have come to retire in a place where golf carts are the primary mode of transportation, and doctors who accept Medicare are as abundant as Florida sunshine.
You might say this is ground zero for Mitt Romney’s now-infamous 47 percent of adult Americans “who pay no income tax … who are dependent upon government … who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”
And so, Sun City Center is where reporter Michael Kruse went to gather reactions from the 47-percenters that Romney derisively dismissed at an intimate gathering of wealthy campaign donors in Boca Raton.
“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” he told the bedazzled men and women, as they wrote fat checks and quaffed champagne, chased with beluga caviar.
Kruse, who writes for the Tampa Bay Times, interviewed a number of 47-percenters like Deming who were learning to waltz at a Sun City dance class. Yes, they had heard of Romney’s secretly-recorded remarks on the news that day. No, they were not offended – after all, Romney could not possibly be talking about them.
Nevermind that these seniors were exactly who he was talking about – as well as soldiers and students and teachers and civil servants and police and firefighters and just about anyone whose income is low enough to wipe out their federal tax liability with deductions for mortgage interest, student loans, child care and medical bills.
The same deductions the Romney tax plan will strip away to spare his wealthy donors any undue pain. But this did not seem to trouble the seniors swirling around the dance floor, oblivious to the implications of what is about to happen to life as they know it.
At age 85, Marilyn Deming may continue to see those Social Security and military pension checks rolling in during her lifetime. But what if she needs assisted living? Does she have enough money stashed away to cover $30,000 a month if she requires a nursing home?
That is the kind of care covered by Medicaid, the program that was established in 1965, which ultimately rescued the cat-food-widows of South Beach.
Obamacare, which Romney has promised to kill on the first day of his presidency, expanded the Medicaid safety net. But that’s not enough for the GOP – the Government of the People – which is pathologically committed to dismantling the nation’s social welfare system.
Deming seems to think this is a fine idea, her perception of “welfare” being the domain of people unlike herself. When the music stopped, the waltzing octogenarian sought out Kruse to set him straight.
Romney’s comments were “perfectly logical,” she informed the reporter, and she certainly was not part of this so-called 47 percent.
“I am very, very anti-government,” she added.
And yet, without the government she so despises, Marilyn Deming could easily be living in a cardboard box spooning 9-Lives from dented cans, because the twice-widowed housewife lives on veteran’s benefits from her late first husband, as well as Social Security and Medicare from her late second one.
In other words, the government – or rather the American taxpayer – is picking up the tab for Deming’s ballroom dance lessons and doctor bills, and everything in between. Yet the reality of this has escaped her completely.
Moreover, Deming’s illusion of independence, along with her professed hatred of the government and her staunch denial that she is among Romney’s designated moochers was shared by many of her peers.
In their view, they are simply reaping what they have sown. They told the reporter they are entitled to the entitlements they paid into all these years.
But it doesn’t really matter what they think, or even that it happens to be true. What matters is the man who wants to be their president considers them – and nearly half the nation, for that matter – to be certifiable parasites.
White Collar, Blue Roots
I know a little bit about Mr. Romney’s 47 percent: You might say it’s in my DNA.
My father was a career civil servant who returned from World War II and went to work as a postal clerk for 23 cents an hour.
Each day, rain or shine, sick or well, he put on the starched white shirt my mother had ironed, carefully knotted his tie and walked out the door with the ham sandwich and apple she packed in a little brown paper sack.
Three decades and dozens of promotions later, after he had ascended to the top ranks of the US Postal Service in Miami, the brown paper sack he still carried to work each day had become his badge of honor.
My father was the son of immigrants, raised with three brothers in a one-bedroom tenement in the heart of New York’s Little Italy. The Great Depression, and then the war, became the defining landmarks of his life.
He had seen a nation driven to its knees, and watched a president struggle for a decade to resurrect it, despite the best efforts of wealthy conservatives to block any form of government relief to the starving American masses.
And he had witnessed democracy nearly marched off a cliff when foreign corporations harnessed the power of governments, unleashing the demagogues of fascism in Europe.
One of those demagogues, Benito Mussolini, suggested at the time that fascism – a word rooted in the Italian language – “should more properly be called ‘corporatism,’ because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”
It was this unsettling truth that convinced my father to live the rest of his life preparing for the next economic collapse, precipitated by men and women with an unquenchable thirst for power and wealth.
Pennies mattered to my father. He was perturbed by waste and horrified by credit. If he needed to buy something, he saved until he could pay cash. If possible, he would make it or build it himself. He was self-taught in carpentry, tile-setting and brick-laying; his weekends were spent on home improvements – which improved with practice.
He tarred his own roof, patched and painted his own walls, poured foundations and added rooms as needed to accommodate his growing family.
He didn’t trust financial institutions, having seen everyone’s life savings lost in the run on banks in ’29. So he saved his pennies in jars, and turned them in for dollar bills, which he tucked between the pages of the many books in our home, the one luxury he considered as essential as food, shelter and air.
He had been an outstanding high school student, recipient of the Theodore Roosevelt Founder’s Medal – a very big deal for a poor Italian boy in New York’s public school system. But he had to drop out to help support his family. Then came the war, and he never did get his high school diploma, something that few people would ever know.
Eventually he came to trust that the post-New Deal government regulations and the FDIC ensured that his money would be safe in a bank and the dollar bills became certificates of deposit, carefully managed, but never to be touched.
Now and then, he’d even buy a few stocks, although it was money he considered no more secure than a night at the dog track. It was supposed to be safe: Like the banks, the stock market had new government oversight designed to keep the unthinkable from happening again. But he knew better.
He had seen the blood on Wall Street, where men who had lost it all leaped out of windows onto the pavement below; he had witnessed the despair in back alleys, where ragged legions of the newly homeless warmed themselves over burning trash cans.
The New Deal that saved lives and rescued a nation was initially financed through higher taxes on the uber-rich, who branded its blue-blooded architect, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a traitor to his class and a socialist whose policies would surely kill businesses and stunt economic growth.
Decades later, when my father saw the old women rummaging through Dumpsters outside restaurants and grocery stores on South Beach, he knew the hard-won safety net that FDR had stitched together during the Depression years, was still not enough: The overwhelming majority of Americans remained a paycheck, a death, a divorce, an illness, an accident away from losing it all.
My father taught me many things, but the lesson he wanted to impress upon me most was: “Don’t ever think it can’t happen to you.”
Lost in Translation
If ever there was a man who could stake unequivocal claim to self-made independence, it was my father. And yet, by Romney’s definition, he lived and died a 47-percenter, a parasite who worked for the government – first as a soldier, then as a civil servant who kept the mail flowing from coast to coast, until he retired on a government pension.
But he also had once inhabited a world in which the government was largely absent from the affairs of its citizens. It is the kind of world Romney and other professed critics of “big government” say they would like to return to.
My father knew that world well.
He grew up on Bayard Street, the fifth son born to immigrants who sailed into Ellis Island near the turn of the 20th century; he was the first to survive past the age of 2.
Back then, there was little in the way of safety nets for even the poorest of the poor. No school lunches, no food stamps, no housing assistance, no health care. When children got sick, they died, and the processions of small coffins headed for burial were a daily occurrence in the over-crowded ethnic neighborhoods where the tired, poor masses huddled a few short miles from the Statue of Liberty.
Those were the good old days, before the house of cards the wealthy barons of industry built on Wall Street collapsed, and with it the dreams of a nation.
My father’s father was a barber, whose skill with a pair of scissors kept his little family alive – barely – even during the Depression, when haircuts were a luxury that few people could afford.
Though there were few paying customers, my grandfather kept busy. He knew that a clean shave and a good haircut could mean the difference in landing one of the precious few jobs in this sad, new world. He was a poor man, but a haircut – that was something he could contribute to men who were looking for work. And he did.
He was also proud and stubborn to a fault, and would never accept anything for himself.
After the war, my parents married and settled in Miami. They bought a modest house, and my father turned a detached garage in the backyard into a little efficiency cottage for his parents. After a lifetime spent in the tenement on Bayard Street, it seemed like a paradise. There was a little yard with grass instead of concrete, and trees where you could walk out the door and pluck mangos and oranges right from the branches! Life was good.
My grandfather set up shop in one of the grand hotels on Miami Beach. It was an hour-long city bus ride each way, followed by eight or nine hours beside the barber chair, trimming the hair of wealthy men on vacation.
He returned each night to a metal basin my grandmother had prepared, filled with steaming water and Epsom salts, in which he soaked arthritic feet crippled by decades spent standing. Afterwards, he would carefully count his tips and record his earnings, proud to pay taxes to the country that had taken him in, so long ago.
For years my father and my uncles begged him to apply for Social Security and retire. My grandfather was appalled and the discussions were often loud, and in Italian. But even I knew what the gist of it was: He would not accept charity – not ever.
His sons tried to explain that it was his money, that he had been giving it to the government to keep all these years for his retirement; but Grandpa was unswayed.
Each morning, he would rise before the sun and shuffle to the bus stop on his arthritic feet, a small, shrunken man with a peculiar duck-like gait. He was in his 70s when he fell chasing the bus down the street one day. That was when he made a rare trip to the doctor and discovered he had lung cancer.
He could no longer work and was humiliated beyond words when the first Social Security check arrived. He died at home, a 47-percenter, “a taker, not a maker” as Paul Ryan put it, when he categorized 60 percent of Americans as leeches.
The Twilight Zone
I would not expect the Romneys and the Ryans of the world to have any concept of men like my father and grandfather, who not only took responsibility for their own lives, but for many others.
And as I listened to Ann Romney enthrall the crowd at the Republican National Convention with stories of the early years of hardship, when she and Mitt “ate lots of pasta and tuna fish,” I had no doubt it was labeled for human consumption, not cats.
When she talked about her history of multiple sclerosis and breast cancer, I wondered how she would have fared under her husband’s prescribed remedy for the many Americans who face these diseases every day without benefit of health insurance and Swiss bank accounts: Just go to the emergency room, Mitt proclaimed, when asked about his plan to remedy America’s health care crisis.
Does Romney honestly believe his wife could have just walked into a hospital and received a lumpectomy, radiation, and the extensive treatments and medications needed to keep cancer and MS at bay?
Had Ann Romney been forced to depend upon her husband’s “health care plan” for the rest of the nation, MS would have already put her in a wheelchair by now, assuming the unexcised tumor incubating in her breast didn’t kill her first.
Life and health is, in fact, something that money can buy if you happen to marry well. The rest – well, they can eat cat food.
Unlike Marie (“Let them eat cake!”) Antoinette, Ann Romney is probably a nice lady, but she doesn’t have a clue.
Meanwhile, the Romneys’ five strapping sons spent their young adulthood producing 18 offspring, but not a minute dodging IED’s in Iraq or Afghanistan.
It’s something of a family tradition – supporting wars, but not fighting in them. Mitt managed to secure a series of deferments that landed him in Paris rather than Vietnam.
Ann Romney is quick to point out that all the Romney men have served two-year Mormon missions in exotic lands. This prosthelytizing, she explains, is pretty much the same as military service. The only difference being, they all came home with their lives, their limbs and their minds intact.
Thus, self-delusion is not the sole domain of Marilyn Deming and her Sun City neighbors. Self-delusion has become something of an American epidemic, carefully nurtured in the Twilight Zone of America, somewhere between Wonderland and Oz.
While the Mad Hatters wrap themselves in flags and throw “grass roots” tea parties financed by the billionaire Koch brothers, the Tin Man in the empty suit doesn’t even know he’s missing a heart.
That pretty much explains how Romney could strap the family Irish setter to the roof of his car and hurtle up the Interstate to Canada without a second thought. Why would he consider the terror of a dog when he made his fortune putting thousands of humans out of work? The Munchkins, after all, were simply potholes on the road to riches.
And pay no attention to that man behind the curtain – it’s just Karl Rove, the great and powerful OZ, conducting the most expansive exercise in thought control since Joseph Goebbels and the Third Reich.
How else can one explain his ability to convince vast numbers of people to insist upon voting against their own interests, like lemmings marching into the sea?
As Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, which Romney paraphrased in the first presidential debate before an audience of 60 million: If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will start to sound like the truth.
Rove is an avid student of propaganda and the architect of American Crossroads, the granddaddy of super PACS. Rove brought us the mind-numbing onslaught of television commercials that countless fact-checkers have pronounced untrue on a scale ranging from “mostly false” to “pants on fire.”
The tsunami of lies – financed by unlimited corporate donations, courtesy of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United – has been numbered in the hundreds by those who count such things, and the assault continues unabated. Republican strategists were unambiguous on this point: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” Or facts.
One can’t argue with success and the ability of a blank check to construct a new reality, where zygotes and corporations enjoy personhood, and people do not; where otherwise rational humans clamp their hands over their ears when confronted with factual information; where the lunatic fringe has kidnapped democracy and hidden it inside the flag.
Tea Party darling Grover Norquist made it clear who is running the show, and what is required to deliver the far-right agenda:
All we have to do is replace Obama…. We just need a president to sign this stuff…. Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen.
Romney apparently fits the bill nicely.
Meanwhile, the Mad Hatters seem to have access to vast sums of money with which to pick off members of Congress whom they deem not ideologically “pure” enough.
One such casualty was Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), with 35-years in Congress and a lifetime conservative rating of 77 percent. Lugar, the Tea Party decided, was not conservative enough, because he committed the unforgivable sin of reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats to solve the country’s pressing problems.
After more than three decades, Lugar was demolished in the primary by Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock, who would seal his Mad Hatter credentials weeks before the election by publicly sharing his thoughts about rape and its place in God’s will.
Romney has declined to withdraw his endorsement of Mourdock, the kind of true believer who will deliver the uncompromising far-right hyper-partisanship the Mad Hatters insist upon to obstruct any agenda but their own.
Back in 2010, when the nation teetered on the brink of America’s second Great Depression, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) proudly announced the Republicans’ most compelling goal:
Our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.
So, as millions of Americans were losing their jobs, their homes, their pensions and their health care, the true believers were busy blocking any attempt to offer them relief. And any renegade Republicans who would dare put the nation’s interests above the party’s – like Senator Lugar – were targeted for removal.
The message was clear: The nation must fail in order for the far-right agenda to succeed. There is a word for this: treason.
I know what my father would have said about all of this: These people who call themselves patriots, who would destroy people’s lives and risk the future of a nation for political gain should be handcuffed, frog-marched to the nearest federal prison and tried for crimes against humanity.
I know what a patriot is. I was raised by one. I can’t say that I’ve been much of one myself, because I’ve rarely participated in the political process. As a career fact-checker, my role has been that of spectator. As such, my political leanings have tended toward “none of the above.”
Absent a compelling reason to go to the polls, I did not often exercise the right my father fought to ensure, shivering and terrified in the trenches of Italy.
My father lived his entire life with the unshakable conviction that history would repeat itself, in my lifetime, if not his own.
He died in 1997, a full decade before his prophecy almost came to pass when, in 2008 America found itself staring down the barrel of the next Great Depression and the next great war, precipitated once again by an unholy alliance of greed and fanaticism. But for the actions of good men and women who battled to stop the nation’s free-fall into the abyss, we would inhabit a very different world right now – one that I envision clearly through the eyes of someone who lived it once before.
And so, I went to the polls on Friday and cast my father’s vote for him.
Wild horses and soldiers with bayonets couldn’t have kept me away.