Romney Argues For The Proper Role Of Government

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been busy after a tape emerged of him telling wealthy donors that nearly half of Americans see themselves as victims dependent on the federal government. Now he's trying to make those remarks part of a broader argument: What is the proper role of government and who should pay for it?

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Republican Mitt Romney has been trying to reframe his much criticized remarks - when he said that almost half of Americans see themselves as victims who are entitled to free services. Now he's working to make a broader argument about the role of government, as NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: There will be no more secretly recorded videos at Romney fundraisers because the Romney campaign has now decided to open fundraisers to the press.

In Atlanta on Wednesday, Romney told his donors that he has a starkly different vision for the country than President Obama. Instead of a government-centered society that takes from some and gives to others, Romney said, he believes in personal responsibility and free enterprise.

MITT ROMNEY: This is how America works. It does not work by a government saying become dependent on government. Become dependent upon redistribution. That will kill the American entrepreneurship that's lifted our economy over the years.

LIASSON: But Romney's earlier statement that 47 percent of Americans feel entitled to a handout is still out there - a big fat softball that the president can't stop hitting.

Here's Mr. Obama yesterday at a Univision town hall in Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIVISION BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When you express an attitude that half the country considers itself victims - that somehow they want to be dependent on government - my thinking is maybe you haven't gotten around a lot. Because I travel around the country all the time and the American people are the hardest working people there are.

LIASSON: Romney hasn't backed away from those remarks, but he has tried to revise and extend them. Instead of talking about the 47 percent, he now says he's for the 100 percent and that his policies can help the middle class and reduce poverty. The culture of dependency argument is a familiar conservative theme. Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, used it in his acceptance speech at the GOP convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPUBLICAN CONVENTION)

PAUL RYAN: None of us should have to settle for the best this administration offers: a dull, adventure-less journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.

LIASSON: The idea that entitlements sap the American spirit and undermine freedom is the subject of a new book called "A Nation of Takers" by Nick Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. Eberstadt points to data that show Romney is right about one thing: about half of Americans now receive some kind of government check, including Social Security and veterans' benefits. And that, Eberstadt says, has a corrosive effect on American character and behavior.

NICK EBERSTADT: There's an increasing proclivity to tax the unborn, to pay for current Social Security and Medicare benefits through borrowing, which is going to have to be paid for by future generations, that encourages a sort of a something-for-nothing mentality.

LIASSON: Former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston, now at the Brookings Institution, has been having a dialogue with Eberstadt in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal.

BILL GALSTON: Even if you want to use the category of maker and taker, it's by no means clear which is which. We have means-tested programs for the poor, we have an entitlement system that benefits the middle-class, and then we have a tax code of exemptions and credits and deductions and loopholes that disproportionately benefits the wealthy. So who is the maker and who is the taker? I think it's not so simple.

LIASSON: Dartmouth Professor Dean Lacy notes many who receive government benefits don't feel they're getting a handout, particularly in states like Florida, where both Romney and the president campaigned yesterday.

DEAN LACY: Well, seniors receiving Social Security, they've paid into it before they receive it. So even though they may be net beneficiaries of federal spending now, I don't think they feel like victims.

LIASSON: And, says Lacy, his surveys show that most people do not have an accurate idea of whether or how much they are dependent on the government.

LACY: Only about 23 percent of Americans think they're dependent on the federal government. They think that they're getting more back than they pay in taxes. So the other three-quarters think that they're paying more in taxes than they get back. Now, some of those people are wrong.

LIASSON: Over time, more people are getting back more in benefits than they pay in taxes. And while that might not create the culture of dependency that Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney decry, it has created a big fiscal problem. Nick Eberstadt...

EBERSTADT: Arithmetically, there are only a couple of ways of solving the entitlement epidemic, and one of them is to raise taxes a whole lot, or the other is to reign in it in and that means changing people's expectations about the future. And there may not be a whole lot of votes in that for anybody.

LIASSON: It's a big leap to go from attacking a redistributionist government to explaining how you would put an end to it - for instance, by taking away the earned income tax credit for the working poor or means-testing Medicare benefit for the middle-class. Yesterday, Romney sounded like he was coming to the aid to the takers as he attacked the president for taking $45 billion in Medicare benefits away from Florida seniors. Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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