Who Said What, Again?

“I know that you believe that you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure that you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

                                                                                              1960s aphorism

Rather than respond in the Comments section to a recent comment, I’m going to do a final election-related post, ignore future comments, and move on.  I apologize for not pulling any punches in what I’m about to say.

My good friend Mike, my college roommate and long-time client, offered a response to one of my recent posts, Mr. Stephens and Mr. Stevens, which focused on the divided state of our politics:

If I could isolate one feature of current politics I hate most, it is the combination of 1) brain-dead misunderstanding of what a comment “sound bite” means and 2) ramping up of dudgeon and outrage at the straw-man misinterpretation that has been created.

Obama knows that innovators and entrepreneurs do something special,, valuable, important, laudable, and he has lauded it himself. He also knows they rely upon infrastructure including roads, bridges, an educated work force, and a legal system that is predictable and transparent.

Romney knows that many in Obama’s base not only support themselves, but are incredible net taxpayers. Romney knows that many wealthy support Obama even though his policies would cost them more in taxes. Romney also knows that while many of Obama’s supporters are not actually receiving government help with housing and food, that they do generally all believe in government support for these things beyond what Republican’s do.

I am NOT amused by those who can’t parse what Obama and Romney actually mean when it is pretty obvious that neither of them is nearly stupid enough to mean what they are accused of meaning. An election shouldn’t primarily be a contest of who can arouse the most dudgeon among opponents by most successfully misunderstanding what the candidates said.

Much as I love Mike, and admire his intellect, he is a poor student of American politics.  His comment reflects a kind of charming anti-cynicism, combined with a willingness to, as Churchill once said, “Strive continuously in the face of facts.”

I’ll start with a set of simple statements.  Words mean things.  When people speak, their statements have meaning.  When someone says, “I have a brown dog,” I assume he is claiming to own a canine of russet hue.

So my first point is that both Presidential candidates, in separate speeches that became controversial, “meant” what they said in the usual meaning of the term.  Let’s take each candidate in turn.

Obama’s speech to supporters in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13 is the more complicated.  The extracted sound bite that became the center of controversy was, “If you have a successful business, you didn’t build that.”  In context, it seems clear to me that Obama meant, ‘You didn’t build the bridges and other infrastructure that enabled your success.’  I’ve stated that before.  But this verbal misstep followed an extended passage in which he said, in effect, “Business owners, get over yourselves.  You are not successful because you are smart or hard-working.  You got lucky, government provided crucial resources, and you are not paying your fair share of taxes.”

Obama’s audience loved this sequence.  The speech was at a campaign event in Roanoke, Virginia, a key swing state that Obama’s campaign believed Romney had to carry to win the White House.  If they could deny Romney the Electoral College votes of Virginia and Ohio, the election was effectively over.  Obama’s campaign expected the 2012 election to be a repeat of 2004, with a not-very-popular President winning re-election by turning out his base.  The most important element of the Democratic coalition these days is public sector workers, who I am confident formed a large part of that crowd in Roanoke.  So Obama was speaking to his supporters, getting them fired up by poking fun at a group who don’t much support him, business owners.  He meant what he said, and it had the desired effect.  (Obama won Virginia.)  He wandered slightly off-script at the end and got in trouble.

Obama’s theme, that the rich and successful got lucky and are not paying their fair share of taxes, has been a durable strand of Democratic campaign rhetoric for the better part of a century, from FDR’s “malefactors of great wealth” to Gephardt’s “winners of life’s lottery” to Obama’s recent campaign.  It is an effective political talking point that resonates across party lines.  Polls consistently show that most voters believe the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes. That was as true when marginal tax rates were at 70% as it is today, when the max rate is 35%.

Does Obama, at some level, think entrepreneurs are important?  Probably.  Does he also, at the same time, believe they aren’t grateful enough to big government, and need to pay a lot more taxes?  Clearly.  Does he concern himself about the economic effects of higher marginal tax rates on Sub-S corporations, owned by independent business folks who have been a key part of the Republican coalition since the 1850s?  My bet is it never crosses his mind.

Romney was speaking to a group of donors in May of 2012 when he said the following:

“There are 47 percent who are with [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the 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. That’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.”

I’m sorry, but how can you possibly “parse” this not to mean what it obviously means?  Again, here’s my reading of the context.  We have the weakest economic recovery in the better part of a century.  Until November 6, no President of the television era had ever been re-elected with unemployment over 7.3%, and it was at 7.9% when Romney made his statement.  And donors who paid big bucks to elect a Republican President were meeting with candidate Mitt Romney, who at that point was trailing Obama in the polls by double-digit numbers.  The donors believed the election should be a runaway like 1980, when Reagan won 44 states with a total of 489 Electoral College votes.  They worried that Mitt would blow it.

Mitt’s explanation for the polls, to paraphrase, was as follows:  ‘The electorate has changed.  The welfare state has expanded.  We are close to a point of no return, where a majority of voters get more in transfer payments than they pay in taxes.  If Obama is at 47% in the polls, that is not because I am running a poor campaign, it is because that is the solid base of takers-not-payers who will always support the big-government candidate.’

Romney’s statement reflects the mainstream conservative viewpoint that we are perilously close to a tipping point, where the United States becomes permanently more like Europe, with higher taxes, less entrepreneurial activity, and a regulatory state that is hostile to enterprise.  In this view, the 2012 election may have been the final opportunity to turn the tide, and restore America to a condition of limited government and economic liberty.

Does Romney believe that the coalition of voters desiring larger government is perilously close to a permanent majority?  Probably.  Does he believe that everyone below the 47% percentile of annual income is in that group?  On reflection, I suspect he recognizes that they are not, one of the reasons he apologized for his comment and retracted it entirely.  Romney’s statement may well have affected the election result, because a component of the Republican base, below the 50% percentile in income but culturally conservative, felt left out by the Romney campaign and stayed home.

But they didn’t recuse themselves because of something the media or Obama’s staff made up, took out of context or used to erect a straw man.  It was because of something Romney said, in so many clear and understandable words.

If you say, “[N]either of them is nearly stupid enough to mean what they are accused of meaning,” you aren’t saying anything accurate about either man, their campaign, or their philosophy of government.  You are simply saying you prefer a self-constructed  fantasy to the reality of democratic politics.  (A kind of Neville Chamberlain thought process there.)

I’m not asking anyone to take sides here.  I’m just pointing out that, as William Safire often said, “Politics ain’t beanbag.”  It is a tough game played for high stakes by smart, ambitious, usually ruthless people.  As a candidate, you peddle different messages to different groups — one for your supporters in public, another for your donors in private (except private no longer exists in the digital age), another for uncommitted voters watching debates.  If one of those messages escapes the reservation (especially one to donors behind closed doors), you may be in trouble, as Romney was this year and Obama briefly was in 2008.  (“Guns and religion.”).

On the ‘politics ain’t beanbag’ note, we need to recognize that the Obama team’s electoral strategy — energizing their base, rendering Romney radioactive by early negative advertising, and putting together the best get-out-the-vote machine in American history, worked.  Romney’s strategy — run right n the primaries, run center in the general election, avoid specific proposals about the budget, and rely on Independents to vote against Obama based on economics — did not.

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