In the imaginary universe of Mitt Romney, the 47 percent of Americans who pay no income tax are loafers, shiftless bums and welfare queens who will all vote for Barack Obama in November. In the real world, that 47 percent includes the working poor, the newly unemployed, handicapped people, the elderly, veterans, 4,000 millionaries and the nation's greatest icon, the American cowboy.
A few years ago, I helped move a herd of cattle with some honest-to-God cowboys on a big ranch near White Sulphur Springs, Mont. At the end of the morning as the cows and calves mothered up, the cowboys told me how they loved the life they lived -- the broad land, the wide sky, the days tending animals, even the hard and endless work in all kinds of weather. One of the cowboys said he knew he would never get rich; he and his wife lived with their kids in a tiny rental house and they would probably never have much more than that. But it was enough for him. He had no interest in being an entrepreneur, a venture capitalist or a king of Wall Street.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average yearly income of a cowboy is around $25,000. Tax laws that were passed under President Ronald Reagan aimed to help Americans of modest means by giving them an income tax break. As a result, working people in the income strata below $30,000 a year are likely to pay little or no income tax. That covers a lot of cowboys.
Are they slackers? No, there is no one with a stronger work ethic than cowboys. A willingness to work does not guarantee affluence, though. Among the 47 percent that Mr. Romney disdains are millions of hard-working, poorly compensated people and other millions of retired folk who labored all their lives. But, in a speech to wealthy donors in May, Mr. Romney said he would not even try to win the votes of this 47 percent because they were "dependent on the government" and felt "entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."
With these comments revealed, it becomes even more obvious that Mr. Romney has vast gaps in his understanding of the people he aspires to lead. He speaks as if he is being fed lines by a staff composed of Ayn Rand zealots and Rush Limbaugh dittoheads and has no clue how they are misleading him. This latest evidence of Mr. Romney's obtuseness appalled credible conservative commentators, such as David Brooks and Bill Crystal. Mr. Limbaugh, of course, was ecstatic to have the Republican presidential nominee join him in a world without facts.
The sad reality is that Mr. Romney is wrong about one other thing: There are plenty of folks among the 47 percent who will vote for him -- and not just the millionaires who have found ways to evade the income tax. Working class men, in particular, have fallen for the Republican call to "take back America" from gays, illegal immigrants, baby-killing feminists, tax-crazy liberals and a president who is just not truly American. They feel embattled and hope Mr. Romney will be on their side. But how can he be their champion when he does not even know who they are or how they live?
If Mitt Romney saw a real cowboy, he'd think it was costume night at the country club.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.