On Thursday, former Massachusetts Governor and current Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney was heckled by some Lefty activists during a campaign appearance in Iowa. The context was a discussion of cuts to Federal entitlement spending–to hugely-popular Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid–which will be necessary at some point in the future to prevent both skyrocketing taxes and drastic cuts to other Federal programs and the Department of Defense. Because of the universality of Social Security and Medicare and the strong moral impulsion behind Medicaid, which pays for health services for the poor, it is a difficult political proposition even to propose spending cuts to these massive government programs, even when the proposed cuts are administrative changes that might leave benefits unaffected. Still, the projected increase in Federal outlays to these programs are so massive and steep that some form of cuts to eligibility or benefits will be necessary to prevent them from becoming a drain on other government programs or on the economy through higher taxes, or both. Stifling discussion of this issue has actually opened the space for reform proposals to include ideological agendas that would be genuinely-harmful. (Witness House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI)’s proposal to convert Medicare’s defined procedure benefits to vouchers for the elderly to buy private insurance–a weirdly-bad idea that would never have had a pretext to emerge had a past President and Congress taken more-aggressive steps to moderate Medicare’s automatic expansion.)
Anyway, Romney’s discussion of the need to control the growth of entitlements was the context for the various hecklers, including an old man who shouted “I’m on Social Security!” as if protesting Romney’s promise to personally assault him. As the presidential hopeful refrained his refusal to raise taxes (the unifying Conservative bromide of the day), a crowd of hecklers came forth from the larger crowd of Republican viewers to call him a liar, pointing out (correctly) that Social Security and Medicare are funded through the payroll tax and thus do not actually contribute to the Federal deficit (thereby disingenuously implying that cost growth in those programs wouldn’t have to be restrained as our elderly population and health care sector inflation increase). After expressing his support for the entitlements, he then laid out the general alternatives for how to keep the programs solvent. When he mentioned tax increases, 1 of the hecklers shouted “Corporations!” to which he responded, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
Within hours this gaffe had become an analogue for the political controversies surrounding the Supreme Court’s recognition of corporate personhood. More-deplorably yet more-predictably, seized upon by Democrats of as high a profile as Congresswoman Deborah Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL), who called it “a shocking admission from a candidate–and a party–that shamelessly puts forward policies to help large corporations and the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class, seniors, and students.” It was no such thing, and in the eagerness of some of my fellow-partisans to capitalize on an understandable misstatement by Romney the Liberal Ironist sees an example of a lack of focus both in our critique of the Right and of our fiscal or legal agenda, or both.
Governor Romney was definitely trying to say that corporations are groups of people. The point he was making at the time that you can’t tax corporations without reducing profits to individual people–in effect, taxing corporations is as always taxing people, not taxing a vast and abstract thing. Actually, Romney missed a golden opportunity to quote President Ronald Reagan, who said “Corporations don’t pay taxes; people do,” which is true.
The people who heckled him during his speech in Iowa were positively acting like creeps–shouting at him for daring to suggest that we could make Social Security and Medicare solvent by providing fewer benefits for the rich. Means-testing for entitlement benefits (or progressive indexing as Romney called it) isn’t really a measure that I support because means-testing might make those programs less-efficient (and because it undermines the 1-size-fits-all principle of those programs), but these people were in effect harassing him for saying current entitlement spending is unsustainable. In the case of Medicare this is definitely true. The hecklers implicitly condemned Romney for proposing a lowering of the corporate income tax rate–which is hardly fair, considering President Obama’s Deficit Commission recommended doing the same thing last December.
I feel bad for Mitt Romney–I can’t believe I’m saying this–and I think these hecklers both abused their privileged access to a presidential hopeful and inhibited the efforts of earnest attendees to ask him questions. If we don’t support his candidacy–and I do not–our sense of fair play should still lead us to make this determination after he’s been allowed to finish speaking free from public bullying by people who aren’t really interested in the details of his proposed changes to entitlements. To his credit, this is precisely what he told the hecklers during his speaking engagement.
In reference to the connection to the various Supreme Court rulings establishing corporate personhood, this concept may turn out to be just a harmful dysfunction of Conservative legal ideology. That said, it isn’t flippant to point out that President Obama hasn’t weighed-in on this issue, either. I’m neither trying to let Romney off the hook nor say that “Barack Obama is just another Republican!” I am saying that even if Mitt Romney’s idea that “Corporations don’t pay taxes; people do” and the de jure legal status of corporations both serve the goals of Conservative ideologues and the interests of their allies in business, they still warrant separate consideration. The regulatory status and legal standing of corporations, on the one hand, and the balance between considerations of income equality and optimal economic growth in corporate tax policy on the other, shouldn’t be studied and debated in the same space; doing so reflects Liberal prejudices about those issues (through the “Corporations are malignant and/or working together” prism) more than Conservative ones. If we just assume that Romney’s statements about corporate tax policy tell us how he feels about corporations’ legal standing, we are just as likely to make favorable assumptions about President Obama’s opinion on the issue. Thus, conflating these 2 issues is as good as dropping the latter. This is part of why we shouldn’t cease to take serious candidates that we disagree with seriously.
Actually, I’ll push further than that: We Liberals should no more allow the mere fact that corporations post billions of dollars in profit to predispose our attitude towards corporate tax policy than Conservatives should allow the fact of hundreds of billions (or even trillions) of dollars spent by the Federal Government to jaundice their views of government programs without some analysis of what those programs do. (Ideology may justify policy choices with harsh consequences in either case, but it does not legitimately do so via an ignorant reaction to large numbers.) Of course, analysis of tax policy and program efficacy will never be sufficient to lead Liberals and Conservatives to some golden age of consensus, but it could lead to novel policy agreements over taxation and Federal program spending–and I think most will agree that this era of stagnation and constraints would be a good time for it.
Or we could just blow past absolutely anything Romney has said about entitlement spending and corporate tax rates and just round it back to corporate legal personhood. While I agree that this is an important issue, due to either discretion, distraction or a curious point of ideological agreement between the Supreme Court majority and President Obama, this isn’t an issue on which we’ve been presented with a choice in the first place. The irony is that if we simply lay the blame for corporate legal personhood at a Republican Presidential candidate’s feet ad-hoc when it is the Federal Courts that have crafted it in every detail, we shouldn’t expect this issue to become a subject of live political debate at all.
A presidential candidate should play fair because he should want to talk about what he wants to do. President Obama in particular composed himself marvelously in the 2008 Presidential Election, and unlike the personally-upbeat George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, he didn’t use a shadow campaign that hurled epithets and spread false rumors to stir-up the passions of his base. If we as consumers of political news, whatever our partisan stripes, focus our political interest on anything besides a candidate’s past policies, proposed policies, and knowledge about their behaviors and personal associations that may raise justified doubts about their promises or put their policies in a different light, we are not paying attention to the news for the right reasons. We ordinary people, ironically, have a “cognitive luxury” here: We get to be partisans while not cheapening our intellect as spin doctors or party apologists. We can proudly embrace political beliefs without having to constantly ask, “Will this development make the other guy/opposing argument look bad?” In politics it is the lay audience and not active practitioners who have the opportunity for academic distance from the cacophony. As the Liberal Ironist would argue with regard to entitlement reform and the legal and regulatory rights of corporations, it isn’t naive to demand a sense of fair play in political questioning and political reporting; it’s naive to think there’s nothing at stake in the choice between seeking pragmatic ways to achieve policy goals and confusing our party for a soccer team.