Mitt Romney has done a poor job defending his unscripted and secretly recorded remarks at a fundraiser in Florida four months ago.
Of 47 percent of people who don't pay income taxes, Romney told the friendly crowd, "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
He can win the White House with a conservative message, but not that one.
The entire 47 percent will vote for President Barack Obama, Romney said, probably thinking his warning would separate his Republican backers in the room from a bit more of their money, not thinking how the remark made public would separate him from millions of people whose support he needs.
Hearing Romney write off the lower-income half of the country was disheartening to the many people with low incomes and who don't disagree with Republicans that the level of government dependence is dangerously high and jobs are too hard to find.
What Romney needs to incorporate into his campaign is the truth that hard times intrude through many doors other than personal irresponsibility. Accepting a government check does not automatically turn someone into a liberal.
Some of Romney's 47 percent retired after a lifetime of hard work. Some were entrepreneurs who took big financial risks and lost. Some have had medical hardships. Some have had marital disasters. Some were simply laid off. It's misleading to frame the issue as a personal choice between self-sufficiency and dependency.
It goes without saying that the top priority of folks who pay no income tax is not going to be a tax cut. But they do have an interest in a stronger economy, smarter foreign policy and a sunnier outlook for the entitlement programs.
On Social Security, for example, Romney proposes for younger workers a slight increase in the retirement age and a slightly slower rate of increase in benefits for wealthy retirees. People will disagree on whether his is the right approach, but they won't be sharply divided along income lines.
On the issue of dependency, the approach worthy of a presidential contender is how government can both lift a family out of crushing poverty and at the same time encourage a jobless parent to look for work.
What would Romney tell a single, unemployed mother who is offered a low-wage job that brings the prospect of cuts in federal assistance for food and rent, and thus would leave her with less money to care for her family?
It's an old issue. The way to encourage work, and backed by both parties, has been the earned income tax credit. How much you get depends on the size of the family and income levels, but it's not unusual for low-wage parents to get back more from the IRS than was withheld for income taxes.
The program began to grow in 1986 when then-President Reagan, very popular with blue-collar workers and retirees, signed a bill expanding it. Reagan called it "the best antipoverty bill, the best pro-family measure, and the best job-creation program ever to come out of the Congress."
It's a better approach than raising the minimum wage, which can cause employers to kill jobs. The present economic slowdown has reduced opportunities for advancement, leaving workers stuck in low-level positions and longer on government subsidy than Reagan and other supporters of the work credit envisioned. The program also has excessively expanded its reach and has been abused by cheats and identity thieves.
Romney should point out that what Obama boasts to be a tax cut for workers is partially a function of the bad economy — many people have been forced into lower-paying jobs and are collecting big tax rebates.
The Republican challenger can score points by explaining how he would refocus the earned income tax credit to better achieve its intended purpose. And there are many other ways he can make a positive impression on conservative-minded voters for whom the issue of tax rates is not paramount.
It's now a two-month campaign. He needs to get started.