By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor
This is the point in an election, perhaps, when reason and serious debate leave the political narrative and silliness and hair-splitting takes over the conversation.
Two candidates are locked in an increasingly tight race for President—so tight in fact that the shift of a few points in polling in a few states could very well decide the outcome of the election For either candidate to prevail in those key states, cash is required—money for on-the-ground resources, but most especially for television advertising. Both candidates—an incumbent and a challenger—are caught making unguarded and unfiltered comments about their own constituencies and the relationship which money will have on voter behavior and the ultimate outcome in November.
First, Mitt Romney is shown in a video captured on a hidden camera making remarks to donors, remarks which seem to indicate a disdain for people receiving government assistance, and—however reasonable his political analysis—a highly impolitic suggestion that the 47% not supporting him now do so out of an attachment to the entitlements they receive. His attempts to explain himself by digging in make the issue worse in some quarters, but may in fact serve to energize still others.
Then, even before that tempest has died down, President Obama must face demons of his own making after comments surface from a recent fundraiser in which he comes perilously close to open solicitation on behalf of a friendly Super PAC. Speaking at a fund raiser hosted by rapper Jay-Z and actress/singer Beyonce, the President, half in jest, suggests that if someone in the room is able to write a check for $10 million, then they should use that money wisely.
Add to this mix of strangeness an ironically-timed video showing a young Barack Obama as a state senator openly arguing the case for the redistribution of wealth, and what we have is a full week of the worst kinds of distractions.
Never mind the potential for democratic collapse throughout the Middle East as a result of radical Islamic rage and violence. Never mind its dangers for regional peace and U.S. strategic interests. Never mind the continuous growth of our mind-boggling national debt and the inescapable problems of Medicare and Social Security. Never mind the parallel issues of joblessness and economic growth. Even the tiny bit of good news—a slight uptick in home values during August—gets lost in the noise of videos gone viral and the inevitable battle of the spin doctors.
Perhaps the first of the debates can’t get here soon enough. Maybe then, when President Obama and Mitt Romney step onto that stage at the University of Denver, the silliness of the competing viral videos and secret tapes, quotes and misquotes will have reached its conclusion, and issues—real issues—will move back to the forefront of the national conversation.
In the meantime, Romney’s words will be kicked around from one analyst to another. “There are 47% of the people who will vote for the President no matter what,” Romney says in a grainy video which shows mostly the backs of people sitting at a dinner table, “…and there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that they are the victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing.”
In fact, the actual words Romney used are not that shocking or disturbing: indeed, for many GOP strategists eager to define this election in the same terms that helped clarify the issue to voters in 1080, what Romney said was merely a clumsier version of what has been said all along. In the long view of most Republicans, we have created a wholesale form of dependency which now extends to a significant percentage of the population—even if that 47% number is both loose, elusive, and probably faulty. Romney’s point was not that those Americans working and earning should turn their backs upon those who suffer—but that the very form of dependency deplored decades ago by people like Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp and Milton Friedman has, in fact, become ever more institutionalized with time, a calcification with frank linkage to an old form of Democratic Party politics known as patronage.
For many Old School adherents of liberal Democratic Party politics there is a simple transaction which takes place at the precincts and voting booths in this country: liberal candidates (which can in fact be very different creatures entirely from Reform Democrats or progressives) offer social services and entitlements in exchange for votes. Some contemporary liberals like to kid themselves that such smarmy, crass forms of exchange no longer exist in the modern Democratic Party, most especially not under the banner of Barack Obama, a man who ran in open disdain for the politics of the past. But when the President’s tack of post-partisanship and conciliation ran headlong into a gale of resistance, his default position brought him back to the simplicity of this time-tested arrangement. Obama seeks to deploy an effective wedge, one that divides “poor” from “rich,” and one which employs resentment as the justification for redistribution. This was, in fact, the point Romney was making.
But it was Mitt Romney’s clumsy misfortune to have had his unfiltered words videotaped, for in the mainstream media such language has long ago been relegated to the column of stark political incorrectness: after all, according to many liberals, and most of their allies in the press, nobody really wants to receive government assistance. But is that what most Americans believe?
Obama has been caught on tape more than a few times embracing the notion of the redistribution of wealth, most notably in his conversation with Joe the Plumber back in 2008. He has managed on these occasions to plead, perhaps fairly, that his comments were taking out of context. And the same can be reasonably said of Romney. Presidential candidates expend virtually round-the-clock energies spouting incalculable numbers of words in the months between conventions and Election Day. From time-to-time they are going to lower their guard, stagger, and stumble.
Romney’s recent pratfalls have been a gift to Obama. Though the national polls still show the race very close, several key swing states now show the President with a slight lead. Polls released by NBC News just today show the President’s edge in Iowa and Colorado—two of the most critical states—growing with each day. To Team Obama, Romney’s goofs are manna from heaven.
But to Romney, these moments must feel like intolerable distractions. And indeed, to most voters, regardless of the percentages (is it coincidence that that “47%” cited by Romney represents a fair estimate in polling even to this day?), these sideshows seem like cynical and pointless exercises.
In the meantime there are still “real” issues out there to be discussed when the silly season ends.