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Updated Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 11:16 PM

Romney stumbles into truth about 'free stuff'

By Danny Westneat
Seattle Times staff columnist

Poor Mitt Romney. Everybody's mad at him now.

So let me say in the fallout from his latest misadventures of the tongue, the man's got a point.

No, not about why he lost. On that he remains as deluded as ever.

But last week, in a conference call with his top donors, the defeated GOP presidential candidate did blunder sideways into what ails American politics.

"Giving away free stuff is a hard thing to compete with," he said.

Romney is right. If there's any phrase that sums up American culture and voting habits in recent decades, it could be "something for nothing."

Now Romney made this point in his trademark tone-deaf and aristocratic fashion. He implied it's only bad if free goodies flow to poor people and minorities. Because then these gifts are bribes to vote for Democrats.

Missing was any mention of the special presents piled under his own tree for corporations and the rich. There was no nod to the massive tax cuts he proposed. Not a glimmer of introspection about how he refused to say how he would pay for any of his own goodies — which is the definition of promising free stuff.

But I bet had he leveled with the public about our stuff and how pricey it is, he would have lost the election by even more.

Because we do love our free stuff. We love it almost as much as we love to pretend we don't.

I got my start covering politics when there was this endangered political species still roaming the country: the tough-talk truth teller. Walter Mondale was one, with his pledge to raise everyone's taxes. Paul Tsongas was another. Ross Perot a third.

They all put out balanced-budget plans that actually added up. This stubborn adherence to math forced them down the perilous, tough-talk road.

We voters say we crave this, to hear hard truths. Except you'll notice what else these candidates have in common: They all lost. The straight talkers always lose.

So next up were the sweet-talkers who still governed responsibly. The first President Bush, for instance, may have said read his lips, no new taxes. But when he confronted reality, he raised them anyway.

He and President Clinton, who also talked pretty but then raised taxes and cut spending, share the credit for the only balanced budgets in generations.

Their reward? They got hammered for it by the people. Bush was tossed after one term. After the 1993 tax vote, Clinton presided over some of the biggest losses ever sustained by his party.

For today's politicians, lessons learned. No hard truths. Stay away from math, even. Because giving away free stuff is too hard to compete with.

That's why the second President Bush was untethered from fiscal reality entirely, putting trillions in wars, drug benefits and tax cuts on the national credit card. It's why President Obama is willing to talk only about taxing the richest 2 percent. It's why neither Obama nor Romney would say what programs they might cut.

Two Cornell University researchers have a possible explanation for this dysfunction.

Suzanne Mettler and Julianna Koch found that only 43 percent of Americans say they benefit from any federal social program. But when read a list of 21 such programs — from food stamps to unemployment to 529 college-savings plans — 96 percent agreed they had benefited.

You can see why balancing the books is so difficult. We're all takers. But more than half don't know it. So it's nigh impossible to rally backing for taxes. Once politicians start naming a precise cut, though, support for saving that program soars.

So here we sit. Hooked on stuff we're not paying for.

The irony of Romney pointing this out is that with his own math-free promises he was among the least credible to do anything about it. Plus there are hopeful signs the national state of denial may be ebbing, anyway.

Here is one: Obama is the first national politician in my lifetime to base his re-election on raising taxes who then went on to win.

Yes, it's just on the rich. And yes, he's much squishier on spending cuts for the rest of us.

But it's a shuffle step back toward reality. Toward, maybe, the end of the era of free stuff.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.


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