The latest example comes of Candidate Romney's musings on the composition of the American electorate so recently come to light, his letting out that there's a goodly percentage of the populace —47% I think he figured it— whom he estimates as beneath or at least outside his concern. “My job is not to worry about those people,” quoth he. "I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
The immediate response I saw from quite a few conservative friends was to reach for Obama's famous "cling to guns and God" comment from back in 2008 as a comparison. We all remember that one. (There's several of my acquaintances who like to remind me of it every now and then.)
"[I]t's not surprising then that they get bitter, and they cling to guns or religion," then candidate Obama said. The soundbyte was a big seller.
Wasn't this just the same kind of unguarded comment that Romney is now suffering over?
But I've got to counter that, while these may be similarly unguarded moments, the substance of what these men said is worth considering. And there is some awfully important contrast there.
Back in '08 Obama was speaking to campaign volunteers and allowing for some exasperation at demagogue appeals to "guns and God" (and the intimation that he posed a threat to them both) —how these served to distract from the substantive policy issues that actually do effect people's lives. (Look to Romney's pledge not to take God off of our coinage as a fine more recent example). While Obama was expressing frustration at the cultivated and ingrained skepticism he and his campaign faced, he still sought to reach the voters he was describing. His comments came as he urged his campaign to persist in trying to persuade."You know, we’ll have a series of talking points. But the truth is that our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's no evidence of that in their daily lives." What the candidate was telling his campaign was that every voter deserved attention, whether they appeared to be a part of some rival demographic base or not.
I don't think you can characterize Romney's remarks that way.
"There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right? There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that 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... These are people who pay no taxes...
[M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
There were whole segments of the population Romney was writing off as essentially not his concern with those words. Winning office would be about persuading some other "5 to 10 percent in the middle" (between the Lowly and the Ascendent) to side with him. That's what this campaign would be about.
Apologists now explain Romney was only talking candidly about political realities of the election contest. The candidate's wife tells us really he "does not disdain the poor" —for all his resignation about their sense of personal responsibility. Sorry, but Mitt Romney's apologists saying that he was only talking about the election strategy and not the governing —and that this somehow makes what he said more acceptable— misses the point, not just the point of my argument, but the point of the design to our political system.
There’s an important distinction between democratic debate and mere election strategy. In the former you make your case for the truth and the proper course for the country as you see it and you offer it even to people who might disagree with you or challenge you. Every now and then you might even improve your position by considering the criticism you receive. In the latter you’re no longer interested in engaged argument. The contest is all and the contest is about stirring your base and suppressing your opponent’s. You might win that contest, but you gain nothing in the process. You only expend resources. While you might secure the levers of power (until the next contest) you do not lead by the merit of consistent ideas.
I’m inclined to forgive Barack Obama for sticking his foot in it about "guns and God" back in the day, because the context he did it in was an argument about reaching past skepticism and appealing on the level of reason, even to those you might see as your opponent's base, those who might disagree with you. I’m less inclined to forgive Romney’s gaffe, as his argument was just the opposite. He described a mass of the electorate to circumscribe and dismiss, to work past rather than treat as fellow citizens to engage and respect.
The image that comes to mind is of Solomon from the old Bible story, with the two women and one baby before him: two women with apparently equivalent claims that he had to judge. One was willing to see the child cut approximately in half, the other not.