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The GOP's '47 percent' problem never really went away

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R)
Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R)Gage Skidmore/Flickr

I tend to think the conventional wisdom about Mitt Romney and the "47 percent" video is largely true: when the Republican condemned 47 percent of the nation as lazy parasites who refuse to "take personal responsibility and care for their lives," it had a meaningful impact on the campaign.

What matters now, however, is the extent to which that ideology remains a hallmark of contemporary Republican thought. Over the weekend, for example, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) declared that Republicans "are and should be the party of the 47 percent." On the other hand, the Washington Post got an advance look at Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's (R) new book, "The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty," and noted the familiarity of his thesis.*

"Sometimes bad politicians set out to grow government in order to increase their own power and influence. This phenomenon doesn't just happen in Washington; it happens at all levels of government. The amazing this [sic] is that they often grow government without protest from citizens, and sometimes they even get buy-in from citizens -- at least from the ones getting the goodies.

"One of their favorite ways to increase their power is by creating programs that dispense subsidized government benefits, such as Medicare, Social Security, and outright welfare (Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing, and the like). These programs make people dependent on government. And once people are dependent, they feel they can't afford to have the programs taken away, no matter how inefficient, poorly run, or costly to the rest of society."

Cuccinelli, the Republicans' gubernatorial nominee in Virginia this year, doesn't literally use the phrase "47 percent," but he doesn't have to -- the right-wing candidate instead complains, "Creating government dependency is the typical method of operation for big-government statists."

Meet the new conservative message; it's the same as the old conservative message.

Those who saw Romney's "47 percent" video as a "gaffe" badly missed the point. The failed candidate didn't misspeak or stumble awkwardly while trying to articulate a familiar sentiment; he created a firestorm by giving voice to a far-right ideology that condemns much of the country for being "dependent upon government" and believing 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."

It's the same ideology that leads Paul Ryan to disparage millions of Americans as "takers."

And it's this same approach to modern governance that leads Ken Cuccinelli to those who rely on programs like Medicare, Social Security, and food stamps, to become "dependent on government," and then vote accordingly.

Greg Sargent captured the larger context nicely:

There's been a great deal of chatter among Republicans lately that they don't really need to change their ideas; they merely need to change their tone. But as Cuccinnelli's comments demonstrate, the ideas are the tone. The basic problem here is not the rhetoric; it's the apparent belief among many conservatives that there isn't any legitimate way that government assistance can be a positive force in people's lives.

In this telling, any voter who is temporarily dependent on government in some way is at risk of suffering a kind of permanent lobotomy, in which he or she will be rendered incapable of rational political decision making or future independence. Any public official who extends the hand of government help in their direction is simply trying to manipulate these poor, lost souls.

It's become fashionable in some GOP circles (see Jindal, Bobby) to condemn part of Romney's 47 percent message -- the part in which the presidential candidate said he wouldn't even try to earn the votes of nearly half the country. Republicans now believe, at least rhetorically, that they intend to target a broader audience.

But substantively, the party's disdain for Americans they see as lazy freeloaders hasn't changed at all.

* edited slightly for clarity