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This is nothing short of tragic. For Mitt Romney and for America.

Until a few days ago, there was reason to believe that the presidential election would be more than a referendum on the economic successes and failures of the incumbent, President Barack Obama. There was hope that the voters were being offered, as a reasonable alternative, a sharp-minded, data-driven turnaround artist who could dive deep into the numbers and find ways to address not only the short-term matters of economic decline but also the longer-term threats of unsustainable entitlement programs.

Now we find out that that alternative is clueless at best and, at worst, heartless.

A leaked video of Romney's supposedly closed-door chat-up with some high-roller political donors back in May hit the Internet this week. It revealed the Republican nominee to be even more out of touch with the average American than the rich-man caricatures had ever suggested.

Romney is heard assuring his fellow plutocrats that a full 47 percent of the American people were off his radar — both as a candidate and as president — because they are nothing more than "freeloaders" who do not pay income taxes, who do receive some form of federal benefits, and who will never "take personal responsibility and care for their lives."

These remarks go far beyond cold. They are flat wrong.

Most of the Americans who do not pay income taxes are retired, subsisting on Social Security and rapidly shrinking 401k plans. They are people who paid into the system over their entire working lifetimes and now rightly enjoy the same benefits that they provided for generations before.

Or they are young families struggling to keep hearth and home together on meager, start-up incomes. They pay payroll taxes, sales taxes and other taxes. Their avoidance of federal income taxes is the result of deliberate exemptions designed to help the poor get a leg up. They include the Earned Income Tax Credit, a personal favorite of Ronald Reagan, and the Child Tax Credit. Both measures have always enjoyed bipartisan support and have done much to help Americans free themselves of the cycle of poverty and, over their lifetimes, pay their share in taxes.

The fact that Romney would raise the issue of who pays taxes, when he has yet to establish that he paid his share of federal income taxes in past years, is astonishing.

Hopes that, as president, Romney might be able to save these programs for future generations of Americans have been dashed on the realization that he does not understand them, or us, at all.

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