What we learned from Oliver North!


That fact is politically dangerous: For what it’s worth, that fact about the 47 percent is politically dangerous. But first:

In July 1987, we learned a valuable lesson from watching Oliver North.

North testified on network TV about the Iran-contra matter. He had never been seen in public before.

We thought he was an absolute clown. Late that day, we chuckled as we went to the pool to swim some laps.

A few days later, the polling came in. The American public was in love with the wonderful Oliver North!

Within a few years, the public’s view of North had changed. In 1994, he lost a Virginia Senate race to Chuck Robb, in a Republican year.

We never really understood why the public changed its mind. But back in 1987, we learned a valuable lesson from those polls. We learned that the way we view an event may not align with the way the public views it.

We’ve been thinking about Oliver North in the past few days. Mitt Romney made some unfortunate remarks about the 47 percent of adults who don’t pay federal income tax.

Politically, that is a dangerous fact if it isn’t explained with great skill and great care. Many liberals don’t seem to see that. They may be reacting to that fact the way we reacted to North.

Forty-seven percent of adults don’t pay federal income tax! If it isn’t explained with great care, that fact can be very dangerous. Never mind how Romney’s statements sound to you. Absent skillful explanation, Romney’s statements may sound quite different to many voters.

Forty-seven percent of adults don’t pay federal income tax! There are dangerous ways to explain that fact.

We’ve heard quite a few this week. More on this topic tomorrow.


  1. Not that difficult or dangerous to explain at all. Just tell the simple truth.

    The "47 percent" includes military, students, Social Security recipients, and working poor families for whom the Earned Income Tax Credit (a Nixonian "reward work" idea) and the Child Tax Credit were written.

    And, of course, it also includes the super-rich with bank accounts in the Caymans and Switzerland who are also allowed to deduct the cost and care of dressage horses.

  2. Here's how that 47% remark commonly plays in ruby-red Oklahoma: "Romney hasn't got a chance because there're too many people on the government tit."

    That's even less elegant than Romney's rendering. But I suspect all variations are coming basically from the same lead sheets. (A jazz term. Get it?)

  3. My non-scientific poll: 90% don't think they are in the 47%.

  4. Here's a nice chart showing what share of total income the various income groups earned what share of the federal income tax they paid. Scroll down a little bit to see the chart.

    1. Hey Dave! You got a chart that shows the total tax burden on all the quintiles? You know, one that also includes payroll, excise, state income, and state and local sales and property taxes?

      By the way, if the Mittster really paid 13 percent of his $200 million income in federal income taxes, that leaves him with only $174 million to take care of everything else. Oh, the horror!

    2. Dave doesn't like progressive taxation, and he thinks it's only fair that regressive sales, gasoline, state income and other taxes balance out the horrible Federal Income Tax burden on the upper classes. Dave has no clue, either, about what disposable income is, and what happens to him when the lower classes have no disposable income.

    3. David, your chart is interesting and useful -- if you want to convince people that the burden of taxes on the rich is unfair.

      Of course, that's baloney, because the chart is seriously flawed as a discussion tool.

      Leaving out state, local, payroll, and other taxes, as it does, it leaves out all of the taxes that hit the lower and middle classes harder than the rich.

      That's why I prefer a graph that includes ALL of the taxes people pay:


    4. And the troll gets his attention.

    5. Dave, if you focus only on Federal income taxes, you will get a picture that may look unfair to the rich to some. There are however many other kinds of taxes. There are capitol gains taxes, which are taxed separately, the fica tax, state income taxes, sales taxes, and on and on. If you take into account all taxes paid, members of all different income groups pay pretty much the same percentage of their income in taxes.

      Which means that if you are in favor of a flat tax, you should be glad, because we basically already have one. But those who think the idea of a flat tax is crazy (the majority of us) should be aghast at the current state of affairs.

  5. The top 1% paid 71% of federal income tax revenues? Outrageous!

    It should be at least 80%.

  6. To turn Romney on his head, the kind of person who buys his version of 47 percentism isn't going to vote for Democrats no matter what, so worrying how those folks take it isn't real productive. The conversation itself, however, is productive, even if we often have idiots and sold out hacks doing the conversing. I suspect the 47% thing will become a Democratic talking point for some time; in fact, it strikes me as a verbal version of Dukakis in the tank. But we'll see.

  7. Those in the 47% who aren't Obama voters and aren't paying taxes will open their ears for an explanation of why they don't count as deadbeats. They will like the fact that Romney called out the "deadbeats" who are different from them, even if they are technically within the 47%.

  8. Whatever hit he takes on the remark, it gave Romney a golden opportunity to do exactly what he needed to do to have any chance of winning. Move voters off a smaller mindset of what will happen in the next year, into a broader mindset of "vision" where Romney and conservatives in general usually have an advantage. Romney has seized this opportunity judging from his remarks addressing the 47% comments.

    1. Great. Now help me out here. What is Romney's "vision." I can't seem to figure that out since he's been pretty reluctant to talk about it himself.

    2. Less government dependency. Anyone who thinks there isn't enough or that it is mostly the fault of a bad economy isn't paying attention.

    3. Yes, in the late 90s, when we had 4 - 4 1/2 percent unemployment under the conservative Clinton, nobody wanted to be dependent on the government, but suddenly, in 2008, after 8 years of the liberal Bush expanding the government "hammock," people decided they wanted to spend their days lolling about on the government dime. The triumph of conservative "vision."

    4. It is mostly cultural and has gotten worse since the Clinton years. The Bush wars don't account for it.

    5. "Less government dependency"

      You can begin by setting an example.

      Don't use any water for any purpose that was produced by a government agency.

      Don't use any government sewer system.

      Don't use any electricity that was produced either directly from a government program, or is regulated by a government agency.

      Don't fly any airline that is under government safety regulations. Don't drive any cars.

      Don't breath clean air if you live in a city, lest you be accused of supporting the vile EPA, a government agency.

      Don't eat any food that was inspected by government inspectors.

      Don't drive on roads that were built with government tax dollars.

      In short, buck up, sonny boy. It's about time you become your own man, unfettered by government dependency at any level.

      We'll see how long you last.

    6. Public unions, "disability" fraud, unemployment fraud, incentives to reproduce for more benefits. Liberals pretend those don't exist or matter and Obama isn't making them worse

    7. Ok, genius. I don't believe they exist.

      Now it is up to you to put precise dollar figures, with sources, behind all this, or stand exposed as a person who just shoots off his mouth with nothing to back it up.

      Go ahead. I'm open to facts.

  9. Here's another lesson we could learn from Ollie North.

    While the public may be fooled by a guy spouting a populist message for a little while, it doesn't take them long to figure out a self-aggrandizing phony.

  10. It's not terribly hard to say, or to understand, that most of the people who did not pay Federal Income Tax in a bad economic time -- but did pay every other kind of tax and at higher percentage of their income than Romney paid for all of his taxes - are (a) retired and paid for their Social security for many years, (b) students in part-time jobs, or (c) out of work (because the Republicans fucked up the economy) but who would love to pay Federal Income Tax (as many of them have for decades) if it meant they have a job again.

    Less than 100 words, and that's the long version. Is that all dangerous to say? I guess we'll see.

  11. There are quite a few reasons why the callback to Ollie North probably is a strech for the situation here. I too, well remember the testimony of Ollie North, but only because of Tom Brokow's sickening play by play, just the sort of thing helped America "Fall in Love" with North, to the extent that they did. Borkow was no doubt in service to his own Jack Welsh, but there was no doubt lots of the pundit class working hard to shape pro North opinions. The normaly slanted to the right corportate media goes into overdrive if the subject has anything to do with the Military, which our press still services as if we were prewar Japan or the like. It's a far cry from the situation with Mitt, who's drawing a considerable amount of flack from his own side on this one.
    A better comparsion might be Bill Clinton's all but forgotten "coming clean on Monica" moment, which was panned one hundred percent by the press and the pundit class, but actually went over quite well with the public and probably saved Bill's bacon. Here, I believe, are the real seeds of the war on Gore, Hell hath no fury like a Pres Corp ignored......
    So yes, sometimes things don't play out with the public the way it would seem they will, but this doesn't figure to help Romney. Remember the one tramp in "Down and Out In Paris and London?" His story was nearly the same as everyone else's in the Tramp's feild, yet Orwell noted he would have argued to his death that none of what you could say about the underclass was true about HIM. They were loafers and bums, HE had just had some bad luck. There will always be this element in the 47%, it's a human thing. But I doubt I this point they account for much.

  12. Who were the people who loved Oliver North? Authoritarians.

  13. Here's another way to help explain the 47%:

    The individual income tax comprises 42% of total federal revenue. Those social security and Medicare taxes make up 43% of federal revenue with businesses and excise taxes the remainder. So those 1% rich folks who pay 70% of individual income taxes, pay about 30% of federal revenue.
    That seems different than the infamous and distorting chart.