WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney, during a private May fund-raiser captured on video, talked disparagingly about nearly half the electorate, saying they were “dependent on government” and could not be convinced to “take personal responsibility” for their lives.
In blunt terms clearly not intended for public consumption, Romney said that 47 percent of the country’s citizens see themselves as “victims’’ and will, without fail, vote for President Obama.
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” he said in the video , over sounds of waiters pouring drinks and clearing plates. “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. . . that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. . . . These are people who pay no income tax.”
“My job is not to worry about those people,” he added. “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Romney, aware that his comments could cause lasting damage, hastily convened a brief press conference Monday night. He did not apologize for his remarks, but acknowledged they were not “elegantly” crafted. He did not dispute the authenticity of the video.
Short clips from the video have been appearing online in recent weeks, but quickly became a political force Monday afternoon when more complete versions were published by the liberal magazine Mother Jones. The full video has not yet been released.
Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, immediately took issue with Romney’s comments.
“It’s shocking that a candidate for president of the United States would go behind closed doors and declare to a group of wealthy donors that half the American people view themselves as ‘victims,’ entitled to handouts, and are unwilling to take ‘personal responsibility’ for their lives,’ ” Messina said in a statement.
Messina added: “It’s hard to serve as president for all Americans when you’ve disdainfully written off half the nation.”
The video of Romney’s controversial remarks comes as his campaign is struggling to deliver its message, and as he has slipped in public opinion polls. The video is also reminiscent of Obama’s comment in 2008 that people “cling to guns or religion,” and it is a reminder that few moments in a politician’s life are private.
At his press conference Monday night, Romney sought to clarify what he said, even as he conceded that his comments were “not elegantly stated, let me put it that way.”
“I’m speaking off the cuff in response to a question,” he said. “And I’m sure I could state it more clearly and in a more effective way than I did in a setting like that. . . . Of course I want to help all Americans — all Americans — have a bright and prosperous future.”
“It’s a message which I’m going to carry and continue to carry which is: Look, the president’s approach is attractive to people who are not paying taxes because, frankly, my discussion about lowering taxes isn’t as attractive to them,” he added. “And therefore I’m not likely to draw them into my campaign as effectively as those who are in the middle.”
Romney also said that donors expect to hear a little bit of the campaign strategy, which he said he was trying to convey, more than any policy positions.
David Corn, the author of the Mother Jones piece, told MSNBC Monday night that the video was taken at a May 17 fund-raiser at the Boca Raton, Fla., home of Marc Leder, co-chief executive of investment firm Sun Capital Partners.
The 47 percent figure that Romney used probably came from the Tax Policy Center, which found that 46.4 percent of US households didn’t pay any federal income tax in 2011. But most still paid other forms of taxes, such as payroll taxes that go to Social Security and Medicare, sales taxes charged at the checkout counter, or property taxes for homes or cars.
Groups such as seniors — some 16 million — avoid federal income taxes due to the tax breaks for which they are eligible, while others receive credits to help offset child care costs that take their taxable income below cutoff levels.
At Monday’s press conference, Romney called for the full release of the video, instead of the clips that have been appearing online.
Few of the other clips are damning in and of themselves — and some showcase him talking more comfortably than he does in staged settings — but they play into some of the images people may already have of Romney as an out-of-touch politician.
“My dad . . . was born in Mexico,” Romney said in one clip. “Had he been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot at winning this . . . I mean, I say that jokingly. But it would be helpful to be Latino.”
Romney also spoke of his wealth, saying he is a self-made millionaire.
“I have inherited nothing,” he said. “There is a perception, ‘Oh, we were born with a silver spoon, he never had to earn anything,’ and so forth. Frankly, I was born with a silver spoon, which is the greatest gift you can have: which is to get born in America.”
Although Romney made almost all of his fortune himself, his family provided a strong safety net, sometimes more. His parents gave him money to buy his first home, and Ann Romney once explained that neither she nor her husband worked while at Brigham Young University, because Romney “had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time.”
At one point during the fund-raiser, Romney said that although women are “open” to supporting his campaign, he was having a much harder time with Hispanic voters.
“If the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American voting block has in the past, why, we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation,” Romney said.
Some video snippets of the fund-raisers were uploaded to YouTube several weeks ago by a user with the pseudonym “Anne Onymous.”
James Carter, the grandson of former president Jimmy Carter, told New York Magazine on Monday that he had helped track down the more complete videos and present them to Mother Jones. Romney often compares Obama to Carter, saying they have both mishandled the American economy.
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.