Wednesday, September 19, 2012 :::
Is it my imagination, or has this presidential campaign had an unusually high number of statements being blown out of proportion?
There was, for example, Obama's "you didn't build that." There was some dispute over whether the antecedent of "that" should be understood as "your business" or "the infrastructure that supports your business," and the most reasonable interpretation of the text supports the former, but I think he pretty clearly meant the latter, and I'm going to proceed under that assumption. Still, in basing the first day of the Republican convention around this botched turn of phrase, the principal distortion the Republicans were engaging in was the contention that Obama had said something meaningful. Taken at face value, Obama's statement conclusively dismantled the argument that infrastructure should be provided by the government without taxes. I have seen the assertion that his statement successfully rebuts only those who argue that taxes should be essentially zero, but even that is too generous - a really hardcore libertarian could argue that taxes should be zero and infrastructure should be private but that, of course I'm going to rely on public infrastructure if it crowds out the development of private streets; I should no more feel obligated to pay the government for those streets than the squeegee guy who accosts my car at the red light.
I happen to support public infrastructure and the taxes to pay for it, but don't see the connection to any currently salient public policy debate. No direct connection, anyway, about which more later.
There was also Romney's much maligned "I like firing people [like presidents who don't do their jobs]" and a foreign tour in which he expressed his disagreement about some of the arrangements for the London Olympics (after been asked) and made what should have been an uncontroversial statement that the Palestinian culture is broken.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden... no, there are too many gaffes to enumerate, and they don't qualify as having been "blown out of proportion" because none of them survived past the daily news cycle.
Last week, an American diplomat with very little security was killed in a city known to contain a lot of anti-American militants on a day on which an anti-American victory would be especially meaningful. Obama flew to Las Vegas for a fundraiser that evening, not long after Romney released a statement suggesting that there might have been mistakes involved. Again, Romney's statement got almost as much coverage as the anti-American violence.
Most recently, a tape was produced of Romney suggesting that the 47% of the population that doesn't pay federal income taxes would automatically support Obama. Meanwhile, an old tape cropped up of Obama announcing that he supports redistribution. Romney's statement was oversimplified at best, but even at worst not nearly the campaign-killer it's being made out to be - to put it another way, he's toast just as surely as Obama was after his "bitter clingers" tape came to light; on the other hand, I support a progressive taxation-and-benefit system, though not as progressive a system as that supported by Obama, and I am really, really unlikely to be mistaken for a socialist.
Now, while these statements themselves should not, themselves, be remarkable, I think some of the ways in which they have been colored has actually been fair. For example, the "you didn't build that" line was, taken literally, meaningless pap. But I don't actually buy the argument that the Republicans are being entirely unfair in pretending that he meant something stronger than what he said, because he acted in his speech as though he was saying something meaningful. Virtually nobody believes that roads and the court system should be maintained by the government and that taxes shouldn't be high enough to pay for them, and virtually nobody in this country actually believes that a founder of a successful business plays literally no role in his own success. Neither consensus leads to a clear answer regarding whether military spending should be 3% of GDP or 4% of GDP or whether cheap health insurance plans should be legal. However, there is an important philosophical difference between whether your principal reaction to a successful businessman is "good for them" or whether you focus first and foremost on the environment in which they were able to thrive (which includes both government-provided infrastructure like roads and enforcement of contracts and voluntary infrastructure like the culture and the demand that exists for a particular product). Similarly, I assume that nobody really disputes that Palestinian culture is broken or that incompetent people should be fired, but plenty of people dispute the notions that the biggest challenge facing Palestinians is their culture or that when you think of people who have lost their jobs, you should think first of the people who had it coming.
So if there isn't any big stuff to consider, treating the petty stuff as symbolic of something bigger makes sense. But this isn't 1996. It seems like there is more big stuff than usual to discuss this election cycle, and yet it seems that the petty stuff has taken center stage to a larger degree than usual.
::: posted by Steven at 12:28 AM