Mitt Romney’s contempt for the 47% of Americans who pay no federal income tax exposed a character flaw … and a meme conservatives have been building for two years. (More)

Mitt Romney didn’t build the 47% meme. As Media Matters reveals, that meme has been growing in the conservative media for two years. Back in July 2010, Fox and Friends‘ Steve Doocy asked if those 47% should be allowed to vote, a question that has bubbled on the right since at least January 2010. The absurdity of that idea had been exposed before Doocy asked the question on-air.

Who are those 47%? A ThinkProgress photo gives one view, and the Obama campaign’s Truth Team offers specific examples:

  • U.S. soldiers in combat – U.S. soldiers’ pay while in a combat zone is not subject to federal income tax.
  • Firefighters – A firefighter with the average wage of $45,000 with a stay-at-home spouse and two kids.
  • U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeants – An Air Force military police staff sergeant with 8 years of service, who earns basic pay of $34,723, with a spouse earning $10,000 through part-time work and at least two kids.
  • Steelworkers – A steelworker making the average wage of $45,000 with a stay-at-home spouse and two kids.
  • Security Guards – A security guard making the average wage of $23,900 married to a bank teller making an average wage of $24,500, with three kids.
  • High School Teachers – A high school teacher making the average wage of $54,000 who is the primary source of income and has at least three kids.
  • Police Officers – A New Mexico patrolman with a starting salary of $39,000 married to a part-time child care worker with at least two kids.
  • Clergy Members – A clergy member whose income of $44,140 is the primary source of income in a family with a spouse and two kids.

The Wall Street Journal called them “lucky duckies,” but over half are hard-working American families who pay payroll taxes but no federal income taxes because they earn so little that their standard deduction and per-dependent exemptions total more than their taxes, or they qualify for work subsidies like the Earned Income Tax Credit and/or Child Tax Credit. A 2003 Employment Policies Institute study found these tax credits help the working poor more efficiently than broader “living wage” laws. They also help businesses to hire more workers.

Most of the rest of the “lucky duckies” are retired seniors with little or no payroll income to tax. Only about one-third of retired seniors have enough income to make their Social Security and Medicare benefits taxable, and most seniors’ retirement benefits are less than standard exemptions and deductions.

Yet Paul Ryan’s budget would cut the Earned Income Tax Credit and raise taxes for the working poor. And, of course, Romney and Ryan want to make seniors pay more for health care. Romney and Ryan aren’t proposing these changes to reduce our national debt; Ryan’s plan would not balance the budget until 2040. They’re doing it to punish the poor while they give special favors for billionaires and big corporations.

The U.S. News and World Report‘s Robert Schlesinger calls Romney’s remarks “contemptuous conservatism.” That dripping contempt is why Romney’s comments matter. It’s not just a policy issue. It’s a character flaw.