What Romney Means by ‘Free Stuff’

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Photo: Eric Kayne/Getty Images

Intel Margaret has splendidly covered the controversy surrounding Mitt Romney’s charge that members of the NAACP booed him for promising to repeal Obamacare because they want “free stuff.” The controversy centered around the racial tinge, which could invoke black people as looters. On the other hand, Romney is also happy to scold young white college students for wanting free stuff, too. Trying to categorize Romney’s line as a kind of racial slur is unfair and almost certainly pointless. It is not unconnected to race, but not in the “that’s racist!” way that we tend to adjudicate these controversies.

To begin with, you need to understand just what Romney is saying about the health-care law. It certainly does involve the government arranging to transfer resources from one group of people to another. Yet here is Romney during the 2008 Republican primary, when he was still actively defending his Massachusetts health-care plan, arguing why his plan was the opposite of giving people “free stuff” — it meant “no more free riders”:

Of course, Obamacare imports the exact same architecture. So the first mystery is, why is Obamacare “free stuff” and Romneycare not free stuff?

The next thing to ask is why Romney is attacking Obama for cutting Medicare. Isn’t Medicare “free stuff”? Well, yes. But — to repeat a point I’ve made several times before — conservative opinion on this question is inextricably linked with race. The New Deal coalition fell apart in the sixties when large numbers of white voters came to see government as redistributing resources from people like themselves to people unlike themselves, particularly black people. Research shows that “ethnocentric” people are more likely to support universal benefits like Social Security and Medicare, and less likely to support means-tested entitlements.

This was precisely the backdrop of conservative public opinion Romney understood when he ran for president in 2008, which is why he sold his health-care plan as a tough-love way to prevent slackers from taking advantage of “us,” and why he now presents the same approach as doing the opposite. “Free stuff” is just a way of describing government benefits for other people.