It seems that one of Mitt Romney’s top surrogates, John Sununu, recently gave us a guided tour of the life cycle of a political gaffe.
First, he wished that President Barack Obama “would learn how to be an American,” and then he amended the comment with a “what-I-really-meant-was” clarification, and finally, he surrendered, as they almost always do, by saying, “I made a mistake.”
But did he? You don’t have to be a birth certificate conspiracy kook to ponder the question. After all, we’re no longer debating whether government should just be huge or whether it should be ginormous anymore. We’re not really wrangling over what levels of debt or spending are acceptable. The president’s central case rests on the idea that individuals should view government as society’s moral center, the engine of prosperity and the arbiter of fairness. Traditionally speaking, that’s not a very American notion.
Surely, he’s not the first president to think it, but he’s probably the first to say it — and he says it over and over again. Take Obama’s recent remarks to a crowd in Roanoke, Va.: “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. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own.”
Supporters protested that Republicans were highlighting one line from the text, unfairly portraying Obama’s comments as an attack on business owners (which they were). But the broader context of the remark is even worse, because it’s the president’s definition of “this unbelievable American system” that’s the real problem.
Employing Obama’s logic, one could argue that nearly everything the president uses in his everyday life exists only because of so-called profit-mongering and selfishness — most often in spite of government. The Internet languished for years in obscurity because government is rarely sensitive to the needs of consumers. And does anyone believe that individuals working together voluntarily (maybe with the help of some fat cat private equity firms) would not have come up with similar technology — or that they would be unable to build bridges or roads themselves?
Obama has it all backward. It is the charity of a prosperous free society that allows people to become community organizers or attain “free” health care. Washington rarely helps the free market prosper, but a prosperous private sector is what allows Washington to throw billions of dollars into unproductive but morally pleasing environmental projects and dependency programs favored by the president. Society needs the rule of law to function, not another parent.
Of course, Obama is not the first class warrior in politics. But has there ever been a major presidential campaign focused almost exclusively on ginning up class envy and fear (Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party run excluded)? The attack on Romney also, almost exclusively, entails calling out the guy for being rich and then relying on the assumption that you can only get that wealthy by being corrupt.
Sununu’s comment was crudely put and too personal, but Obama’s ideas do conflict with the traditional understanding of individual freedom. That said, there is nothing inherently wrong about pondering foreign ideas; almost all of ours are imported, after all. Early on, we pruned them, codified them and worked those ideas to our advantage. Most politicians express them in various ways; few follow through and protect them. The president, though, is arguing for a pretty drastic change to our stated — oftentimes unpracticed — philosophical understanding of government’s role in our economic lives.
So if not un-American, the ideas that propel Obama’s re-election campaign are certainly unprecedented.