Nicholas Kristof: It takes one to know one; isn't that right, Mitt?

September 24, 2012 

As I watched a video of Mitt Romney scolding moochers suffering from a culture of dependency, I thought of American soldiers I've met in Afghanistan and Iraq. They don't pay federal income tax while they're in combat zones, and they rely on government benefits when they come back.

Even if they return unscathed, most will never pay lofty sums in federal income taxes. No, all they offer our nation is their lives, while receiving government benefits -- such as a $100,000 "death gratuity" to their wives or husbands when killed.

Maybe I'm being unfair, for I'm sure that when Romney complained in that video about freeloaders, he didn't mean soldiers. But the 47 percent (more accurately, 46 percent) of American families whom he scorned because they don't pay federal income taxes includes many other modestly paid workers or retirees who have contributed far more meaningfully to America than some who can shell out $50,000 to attend a fund-raiser like the one where Romney spoke in May.

What about the underpaid kindergarten teacher in an inner-city school? What about young police officers and firefighters? What about social workers struggling to help abused children? One lesson is the narcissism of many in today's affluent class. They manage to feel victimized by the tax code -- even as they sometimes enjoy a lower rate than their secretaries and ride corporate jets acquired with the help of tax loopholes.

While self-pitying Republicans focus on federal income taxes (mostly paid by the rich), what's more relevant is the overall tax bill -- including state, local and federal taxes of all kinds. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, the majority of American families pay more than one-quarter of incomes in total taxes -- and that may be more than Romney pays.

Romney is a smart man and, his friends say, a pragmatist rather than an ideologue, so what possessed him to say these things? There's an underlying truth there -- we do have a problem with entitlements and with freeloaders -- and he inflated it beyond recognition. Perhaps he has passed so much time in a Republican primary bubble, hearing moans about the parasitic 47 percent, that he didn't appreciate how obtuse and arrogant such comments appear.

The furor also reflects the central political reality today: The Republican Party has moved far, far to the right so that, on some issues, it veers into extremist territory.

Jeb Bush noted earlier this year that even conservative icons like President Ronald Reagan wouldn't fit easily into today's Republican Party. President Richard Nixon, who founded the Environmental Protection Agency, would be a lefty. This year, Republican primary voters have been further purging the party of centrist remnants, like Sen. Richard Lugar, a foreign policy heavyweight who deserves America's thanks for helping make us safer from loose nukes.

The Republican shift shows up in polling. In the 1960s, more than two-thirds of Democrats and Republicans alike expressed trust in government. That has fallen to about one-third for Democrats -- and to just 5 percent for Republicans.

For me, the saddest polls are those about facts. A Dartmouth poll this year found that Republicans believe, by a ratio of more than 3-to-1, that "Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the United States invaded in 2003." The same poll found that Republicans believe, almost by a 3-to-1 ratio, that President Barack Obama was born in another country. Democrats also suffer from self-deception (such as a reluctance to credit improvements under a Republican president), but today's Republicans seem disproportionately untethered to reality.

Another illustration of radicalizing self-delusion comes when the son of a governor and corporate chief executive says that "everything that Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way, and that's by hard work."

Romney has proved himself right: We manifestly do have a problem with people who see themselves as victims even as they benefit from loopholes in the tax code.

One is running for president.

THE NEW YORK TIMES

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