Has one unfair article picked our next president?

    An article claiming that Mitt Romney insulted Social Security recipents in a speech to donors was not truthful, and may have a chaotic effect on the votes of seniors on Nov. 6.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    Very simply stated, mathematical chaos theory is the study of systems like weather in which tiny causes can have dramatically large and unpredictable effects. An example usually cited suggests that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas.

    That model, if not exactly the science, seems to fit our modern media-dominated elections. Though thousands of news articles and opinion pieces inform the public mind, a single one, like the butterfly flapping its wings, may produce a momentous change in outcome.

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    In 2000, Bush won the election by winning heavily senior-populated Florida by fewer than 600 votes. An article about Bush insulting senior citizens would likely have won for Gore. Current polls indicate the 2012 election may be close enough again in a number of states for a chaotic result.

    On Sept. 26, an article by nationally syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts Jr. appeared in the Miami Herald and soon other newspapers nationally. Called “Poverty as character defect,” it criticized statements by Mitt Romney at a $50,000-a-plate campaign dinner. Romney has since admitted his words were poorly chosen — but they are still fair game.

    Here is an excerpt from that article, edited down to what Pitts claimed Romney said:

    Romney was heard last week in a secretly recorded video disparaging the 47 percent of Americans — low income earners, Social Security recipients and others — that he says pay no taxes.

    … the Republican presidential nominee described those non-taxpayers with contempt as people “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims …”

    Romney says it’d be a waste of time pitching his campaign to those moochers: “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

    Here’s what Romney actually said, edited down to what Pitts was quoting from.

    … there are 47 percent who are with him [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that 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. …

    These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. … And so my job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

    The contrast between Romney’s words and Pitts’ version is startling. Pitts singled out Social Security recipients and low-income earners, but Romney never explicitly mentioned anything about those groups, let alone with contempt. The only basis for Pitts’ claims about Romney’s meaning is the 47 percent figure of non income-tax payers, which Romney did speak of with contempt.

    But that statement was a speechmaking blunder, so obviously false it can’t be taken seriously. To believe it is to believe that Romney thinks our country is made up of those who pay income tax and those who believe they are victims and have the right to be government-supported dependents.

    Two very obvious exceptions to both groups are low-income earners and Social Security recipients, yet Pitts claims that Romney intended to include them among the entitled dependents. It’s the mark of a partisan to jump at the improbable view that Romney meant to include and insult groups who clearly don’t fit his highly negative profile rather than the view that he mistakenly failed to exclude them.

    Romney stumbled by trying to define the makeup of the 47 percent in two different ways in order to energize his financial supporter audience. The fallacious-entitled-dependents definition played on their annoyance at the growth and extremes of the welfare entitlement mentality. The non-income-tax-payers definition was to stir up concern about their numbers threatening to grow past 50 percent — the tipping point where “Tax and spend!” becomes a slogan for winning elections.

    Pitts’ assumption that Romney’s contemptuous words were implicitly referring to those receiving Social Security is particularly indefensible. Seniors on Social Security are moochers (Pitts’ word), consider themselves victims, have a welfare entitlement mentality, and are hopelessly irresponsible about caring for their lives? That’s absurd. They have paid into and are entitled to their support. And is any group more interested in caring for their personal welfare than seniors? As for Romney saying he can’t be bothered worrying about them, he would have had no audience when he was done if they thought he meant people on Social Security.

    How could Pitts go so far? Perhaps this, from an unrelated article just three days later helps to explain it. He wrote:

     … As any experienced ranter can tell you, thinking about it has the unfortunate tendency of turning a good, clean rant into a muddy quagmire of fine points, conditional sentences, and digressions as delicately balanced as a Swiss watch.

    But his rant about Romney insulting Social Security recipients was neither good nor clean nor truthful, and an unknown number of senior votes it changed are out there waiting. An errant butterfly has flapped its wings in Florida and given chaos an opening to create a storm over Romney on Nov. 6.

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