Thursday, September 6, 2012

On the question of "building that"

Regular readers of Cinema Democratica will know that there hasn't been anything regular to read. I won't apologize here because, well, because that's been done. There is the matter of a new novel, which I began outlining on January 1st of this year and which--owing to a comedy of unforced errors--is scarcely any closer to completion than it was, then. Bringing the sort of attention to detail to that project that I very conspicuously failed to bring to any of its predecessors in my own bibliography, I've had little energy and even less enthusiasm to write anything else.

Quite aside from the issue of my time, though, there has also been the issue of my emotional investment. For any number of reasons, mostly to do with my disappointment with the President, I've felt almost none of the feverish daily investment in political affairs during this election cycle that I did four years ago. (When the guy to whom you gave three months of your persuasive-essaying life, four long weekends driving people to the polls, and a couple of thousand bucks, stands before a joint session of Congress for the last State of the Union Address of his first term and blames the high cost of college tuition on excessive faculty salaries, you may be forgiven for harboring a certain measure of ambivalence to the question of his continued incumbency. Especially if you teach college classes for a living.)

The thing is, there is only so much internet-free office space in the universe, and only so many ways to avoid viewing the aggregated political news of a person's daily facebook feed, before the whole thing becomes so unavoidable that fatalistic detachment starts competing inside one's head with fully-formed theses about what's going on. "You could never stay home when armies are moving," is how Sherman put it to Grant, after the latter had "retired" to Ohio in a snit in 1862. And if there are to be fully-formed ideas inside my head about what's going on, there seems little point in not inflicting them on the five of you, too.

The fully-formed idea inside my head this morning is that the Republicans have committed a grave and, as far as I can tell, un-commented miscalculation, with this whole business about "yes we did build that."

Certain aspects of the dispute are well documented and easily told. Speaking in Roanoke, Virginia On July 13th, the President spoke about the indispensable role of public infrastructure in fostering an environment for entrepreneurial success. Since he is the President, he couldn't say what I have said--namely that anyone who doubts this should try being a successful businessperson in Somalia, but he did suggest something of the sort, when he said

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business--you didn't build that."

Obviously (even without the benefit of hearing the president's inflection), what Barack Obama was saying was that a person cannot expect to be economically successful without an infrastructure that all of us have to underwrite together, and that to attribute one's success exclusively to entrepreneurship and gumption is an act of willful naivety. The "that" at the end of the President's remark, is clearly--*clearly*--referring to the infrastructure, and not to the success.

If you're reading this, you know what happened next: In the increasingly detached never-never world of the modern Republican Party, the context of the President's remark was treated as an irksome detail that could be managed against the potential for political gain in the most expeditious and familiar way: They ignored it--leaving only the words, "[i]f you've got a business, you didn't build that." In a flash the story they were telling, using platforms ranging from Rush Limbaugh to CNN, was that the President had suggested there was no role for the individual in his own success; it's all on us, sitting around in our pink diapers, making businesspeople successful because we love forcing them to pay crippling taxes when we're not sipping espressos with Bill Ayers and plotting to convert Jeremiah Wright to Islam.

This is dog-bites-man kind of stuff at this point in our political history, of course: Lifting things out of context for political gain is something Republicans do very well, precisely because political gain is all that matters to them and has been for some time. They figure out what will resonate with an undecided voter in Ohio, and then they say it. Regardless of the truth. It worked on Michael Dukakis with Willie Horton; it worked on Al Gore with lockboxes; it worked on John Kerry in the matter of his Vietnam war record; it very nearly worked on Barack Obama with Joe The Plumber. It's part of their playbook, and far too much column-space has been used to validate the tactic by complaining about it already for me to do another overheated screed about the cynicism and outright duplicity involved, here. It's not news that Republicans are doing this in 2012. What is news is the extent to which the choice of this particular lever, at this particular moment in time, seems destined to cost them more votes than it gains.   

In case any of us have missed it, Barack Obama is no Michael Dukakis. (He's no Bill Clinton, either, but then again nobody is.) Shortly after a pro-Romney Super PAC began airing a commercial in which the "you didn't build that" line was maliciously misrepresented in just the sort of ways we've all seen only too many times before, the Obama campaign did an almost unprecedented thing: They responded--swiftly, decisively, and with gusto. Other Democratic campaigns going back at least as far as Muskie have weighed the advantages of showing some backbone in the face of such attacks, against the importance of "staying on message," and have consistently erred on the side of validating these shenanigans by allowing them to drift by unchecked. Ask the typical low-information independent voter why John Kerry lost the 2004 election, and he or she will say, "Because it came out that he'd lied about his war record," even though John Kerry did no such thing. John Kerry lost the 2004 election because Bob Shrum told him to lie face-down on the floor and take his bullying in order to preserve the high ground of non-engagement. ...Since it worked so well for Neville Chamberlain, after all. Barack Obama wasn't about to make the same mistake this time.

Still, I'd be willing to bet that few persuadables in the middle took much notice--as evidenced by the fact that Republican surrogates just kept right on flogging the business unabated after the Obama response began to air. Newt Gingerich made the rounds; a series of disturbingly bellicose Facebook cartoons made the rounds; newly anointed VP candidate Paul Ryan even turned at one point to his mother and said, "Yes you did build that, Mom"--leaving some of us to wonder how she found time to raise a child while slaving away at her underpaid night-job as a highway engineer.

Sensing that they had their opening (as they so often do with annoying precision), the Republicans even began touting the intentionally mangled quote as a rallying banner for their national convention last week in Tampa. Over and over, before and during the event, they took turns saying "We Did Build That," and even made it a slogan mounted to one of the walls inside their slogan-heavy showcase for their slogan-heavy agenda.

Democrats did what Democrats do. We pointed out that the President's words were still being lifted completely out of context. We pointed out that the President's argument is completely and self-evidently true. We wrung our hands. We made bellicose Facebook cartoons of our own and then, like all good Democrats throughout eternity, we showed them to ourselves. "Look at how maliciously the other side is twisting our words," we said to ourselves. "Look at how dishonest they are," we said to ourselves. "Nobody should vote for someone capable of stooping to such unbecoming behavior," we, said, to, ourselves. None of which was going to do anything to hold the Republicans accountable--indeed much of which only ever serves to salt their self-satisfaction with a generous helping of schoolyard-bully glee at having also managed to exasperate us emotionally into the bargain. ("What's the matter, can't you people ever manage to take a good joke?")

But a funny thing happened on the way to this incident becoming Barack Obama's I-was-for-it-before-I-was-against-it moment: The Republicans forgot that, for this tactic to work, it can't just make the other guy look bad. It also has to strum the sensibilities of the electorate it is trying to persuade.

If you say John Kerry has lied about his war record, you appeal to a group of people who aren't terribly engaged in the election but are looking for one last reason not to vote the other, decent-enough seeming guy out of the job. If you say Michael Dukakis allowed Willie Horton to climb through someone's window while on a prison furlough, you appeal to a group of people who weren't terribly engaged in the election but are looking for one last reason not to switch the party-in-power in the middle of the Cold War. Both of these were mediocre-economy elections, and in both of them the persuadable voters were persuadable precisely because they didn't feel much of a stake in the outcome either way.

In 2012, by contrast, a great many of the persuadable voters out there are up-for-grabs for what amounts to the opposite reason: Struggling and scared, unemployed and underemployed and fearing for their jobs, still disgusted with the failed economic policies of George W. Bush, equally disgusted by what feels like the unfulfilled promise of a man who promised them a change, the undecideds in this election may not be any better-informed than their predecessors in 2004 or 1988, but they are much more highly motivated. They're only undecided because they don't find either alternative particularly satisfying, at least yet. And that's a very big difference from the days in which these tactics were being used to win an election in which a lot of late-breaking voters were expressing confidence that things would probably be okay either way. People are not confident that things will probably be okay either way, this time.

So here is my question for the Republicans: If you're trying to win over a group of people who are that scared--for their children's economic futures and their own economic futures and in more than a few cases even for their economic present--does it really make sense to stand on a convention stage and crow about how successful you are?

Never mind the optics of seizing the President's words out of context. Many in the target audience wouldn't know a YouTube video from American's Funniest Videos, and wouldn't watch footage of the President's actual remarks if you pinned them to the floor and taped their eyelids open. We Democrats don't want these things to be true, but they are: A lot of people out there won't be persuaded by the second thing they hear about a sub-topic, especially in politics. A lot of people believe that Barack Obama said "you didn't build that" the way the Republicans are saying that he did, and a lot of them are going to go right on believing it no matter how the facts are packaged. That's what Republicans are counting on, and in the past they've been right to consider it their Get Out Of Jail Free card, with which to say with impunity anything they want to say, from twisted truths to naked falsehoods and back again in time for lunch. They do this every election cycle, and every election cycle they get away with it.

The real peril of the Yes-We-Did-Build-That gambit isn't any of the things Democrats want it to be. It's not that self-reliance is a fiction, which it is. It's not that the coherent arguments about context will resonate with anyone and the Republicans will look bad in the process, or that the shrillness with which they've been flogging this message will make the target of the attacks look sympathetic as a result. The real peril of this tactic, applied to this incident, is that this time around the very people whose candidate-choosing metric is coarse and flat-footed enough to permit that sort of manipulation are, almost by definition, persuadable because their lives aren't going particularly well right now. It's not that things are so hunky-dory that they'll settle for anyone; it's that they're casting about for the better of what they perceive as two flawed solutions to an ever-more serious set of problems.

With such a cohort, the sight of very wealthy people congratulating themselves for "building" something that the rest of us don't have, in the course of claiming sole credit for building it, is at the very least an odd choice of optics for a campaign's gotcha moment. Indeed I would argue that it's downright tone-deaf: a profoundly ugly message to be sending to people who are undecided because they are scared for their futures--and, in my opinion, one that will ultimately be far more devastating to Mr. Romney's chances than to those of Mr. Obama. If it works, it will mark the first time in history that a capital-defending party has won an election in the middle of a recession by reminding the rest of us how rich they are. And that's a risk I wouldn't envy any party, no matter how comfortable with lies, for finding itself having to take.

Dave O'Gorman
"The Key Grip"
Gainesville, Florida

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