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The Daily Debate - 7/19/2012

By Robert Tracinski

The Daily Debate

edited by Robert Tracinski

Brought to you by RealClearPolitics.

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July 19, 2012

1. Defining Moment

2. Did He Say That You Didn't Build That?

3. Down the Ballot

4. Around the RealClear Universe

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1. Defining Moment

The whole focus of President Obama's campaign for the past few months has been to "define" Mitt Romney in negative terms for the American voter. Instead, Obama may just have defined himself negatively.

His "you didn't build that" speech—spoken on an unlucky Friday the 13th—is much bigger than his "the private sector is doing fine" gaffe. That one merely implied that he was out of touch with the state of our stagnant economy. This one is much deeper and more personal. Philosophically, it is being portrayed as an endorsement of collectivism over individualism. Emotionally, it is being portrayed as a statement of contempt for small business owners, entrepreneurs, and ambitious strivers in general. Which is a big problem in a nation of ambitious strivers.

How bad is it? Yesterday, RCP linked to an article by Arianna Huffington on the power of "storytelling." Well, the right has been telling an awful lot of powerful stories in response to Obama's remarks.

The Chicago Tribune's John Kass tells the story of how his father and uncle ran their grocery store on the South Side of Chicago.

"When President Barack Obama hauled off and slapped American small-business owners in the mouth the other day, I wanted to dream of my father.

"But I didn't have to close my eyes to see my dad. I could do it with my eyes open.

"All I had to do was think of the driveway of our home, and my dad's car gone before dawn, that old white Chrysler with a push-button transmission. It always started, but there was a hole in the floor and his feet got wet in the rain. So he patched it with concrete mix and kept on driving it to the little supermarket he ran with my Uncle George.

"He'd return home long after dark, physically and mentally exhausted, take a plate of food, talk with us for a few minutes, then flop in that big chair in front of the TV. Even before his cigarette was out, he'd begin to snore.

"The next day he'd wake up and do it again. Day after day, decade after decade. Weekdays and weekends, no vacations, no time to see our games, no money for extras, not even for McDonald's. My dad and Uncle George, and my mom and my late Aunt Mary, killing themselves in their small supermarket on the South Side of Chicago."

But what about all of the help they got from government? From my days in Chicago, I remember Kass for his gimlet-eyed portraits of the city's famous corruption. Now I know where that came from.

"One of my earliest memories as a boy at the store was that of the government men coming from City Hall. One was tall and beefy. The other was wiry. They wanted steaks.

"We didn't eat red steaks at home or yellow bananas. We took home the brown bananas and the brown steaks because we couldn't sell them. But the government men liked the big, red steaks, the fat rib-eyes two to a shrink-wrapped package. You could put 20 or so in a shopping bag.

"'Thanks, Greek,' they'd say.

"That was government."

Kass's column is particularly powerful, but it's just the beginning of a flood of similar stories.

For example, Hunter Baker recalls his experience working for the owner of a drug store 20 years ago.

"When I heard President Obama's comments about people who start businesses, how they didn't do it by themselves, how they aren't smarter, and how they don't work harder, I thought about Bob Brunton. When he started his drug store, Bob had to take all the financial risk of failure. He had to stay open long hours each day and worked weekends, too, for years until he had a solid client base and could afford to work fewer hours. But even when I was there, Bob was putting in a lot of time. He didn't take off for lunch. He just heated a little container in the microwave and kept going....

"Bob Brunton worked hard. Bob Brunton took financial risks. And Bob Brunton was smart about the way he conducted his business. I'm sorry to say that Bob didn't live all that long after he retired. He had given a lot of himself to his work....

"The president can build up the role of government all he wants. I concede that it is important. But he really should not downplay the contribution of the small businessmen and women who do so much to make our country great. But if that is the case the president wants to make, he's got a long way to go to convince me, because I worked for Bob Brunton of Decatur, Alabama, who ran a drug store."

And the Romney campaign is now running a web ad featuring lines from Obama's speech, spoken over scenes from the life of a machine shop owner in New Hampshire.

This wave is only building. Expect more stories, and more, and more.

The stories will be used to drive home the suspicion that this reveals Obama's real attitude toward economic success.

Michael Barone says that Obama "revealed what he really thinks."

"The cynical might dismiss Obama's preoccupation with higher tax rates as an instance of a candidate dwelling on one of his few proposals that tests well in the polls. Certainly he doesn't want to talk much about Obamacare or the stimulus package....

"But maybe Obama's Captain-Ahab-like pursuit of higher tax rates just comes from a sense that no one earns success and that there's no connection between effort and reward."

Jennifer Rubin, writes that Obama "let the cat out of the bag."

"Obama has been painting a cartoon version of opponents for years. And lo and behold he's revealed himself to be the very caricature of the anti-business, government-is-all liberal Republicans have claimed him to be."

Politicians often become associated with a phrase or sentence that defines them, for good or ill. "Read my lips: no new taxes." "It all depends on what the meaning of the word is, is." And perhaps most notoriously: "I voted for it before I voted against it."

President Obama is in danger of having "You didn't build that" become his defining sentence.

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2. Did He Say That You Didn't Build That?

It is telling that the main line of defense for Obama, on the "you didn't build that" controversy, is to claim that he didn't really say it, that the phrase was taken out of context and really meant something else. Which is to say that no one wants to defend it as is.

Tim Cavanaugh provides an unsympathetic overview of "How 'You Didn't Build That' Became 'He Didn't Say That'."

The main example he cites is a Talking Points Memo piece describing the quote as a "canard," but the actual content of the article merely describes the process in which the quote was picked up by an alert blogger and made its way through other venues in the right-leaning media until the Romney campaign picked it up.

James Taranto scoffs at any attempt to reinterpret Obama's speech: "Barack Obama is supposed to be the World's Greatest Orator, the smartest man in the world. Yet his campaign asks us to believe he is not even competent to construct a sentence."

Jonathan Chait's defense is to assume that the complaint that Obama has "attacked success" really means that Romney is upset that Obama is attacking the rich.

"Finally, we have the broader idea that something about what Obama is doing to the rich—proposing to raise their taxes, talking about them in less than uniformly worshipful tones, whatever—is at the root of our economic ills. This is the deepest belief among the angry conservative rich. Somehow Obama has displeased the rich, and they have in turn withheld their effort and genius, to the detriment of all.

"But the truth is that the very rich are doing incredibly well, enjoying massive income gains. No hint or wisp of any policy, cross word, or bad vibe has inhibited the rich from continuing to amass huge economic gains. And without that piece of fact—without the basic underlying reality of the rich struggling economically under Obama—even the loosest overlap between Romney's formulation and the truth collapses. The centrality of the very rich to the success of the country as a whole is a matter of religious certainty among the American right, but the faith has not even the slightest bit of factual basis."

Yet it seems to me that Chait hasn't spent much time listening to what Romney and others are saying. For example, when Romney accused Obama of attacking "success," the examples he gave were not just Steve Jobs and Henry Ford; they were entrepreneurs who start taxi services and barber shops and "everyone in America who wants to lift himself up a little farther." See item #1 above for some other examples Obama's critics are citing: owners of grocery stores, drug stores, machine shops.

Obama's defenders will miss the mark if they underestimate the appeal of a small-government message to middle-class strivers and instead just plug every controversy into a pre-determined story line of "the rich versus the rest." Which is to say that "storytelling" has its downside, after all.

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3. Down the Ballot

With all the heat of the presidential campaign, let's not forget the other races going on down the ballot.

Stuart Rothenberg reports that we are forgetting about them—and this is helping to sink the Democrats' hopes of getting back a majority in the House.

"House races often don't start getting attention until after Labor Day. But with the presidential contest sucking the air out of the political environment and defining the electoral landscape, House candidates may find they have an even harder time than usual defining themselves and their opponents.

"That means the existing trajectory of the fight for the House may be harder and harder to change as Labor Day approaches, creating a growing problem for House Democrats who continue to insist that the House is 'in play.'"

He projects that Republican will retain at least an 8-seat majority, and probably a good deal more.

RCP's Caitlin Huey-Burns does her part to keep at least one race from being forgotten. She profiles a real-life Mr. Smith who want to go to Washington: long-shot Republican Senate candidate Tom Smith, who is running against Bob Casey in Pennsylvania.

Finally, as a sidelight to the Veepstakes, Jason Zengerle offers an amusing look at the, er, probing that a vice-presidential candidate has to go through.

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4. Around the RealClear Universe

There's much more on the main page at RealClearPolitics, and here are some highlights and sidelights from around the RealClear universe.

RealClearMarkets links to a column in Canada's National Post explaining that the recent report that per-capita Canadian wealth has surpassed America's is mostly an artifact of a strong Canadian dollar—or a weak American one.

One of the things that could alter the debate in the U.S. presidential race would be a foreign crisis, and RealClearWorld links to one that is building: the increasingly probable collapse of the Assad regime in Syria, following a bombing that killed top regime officials.

RealClearReligion links to Michael Kinsley's advice that Mitt Romney should do more to play up his "communitarian" Mormon faith, "because it could be the best thing about him."

With all the attention given to Burmese freedom icon Aung San Suu Kyi recently, RealClearHistory links to an article on Burma's original freedom icon, her father Aung San.

RealClearTechnology links to an article on how a new voice-recognition payment system is going to end the credit card, making yet one more normal, everyday part of our lives obsolete.

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—Robert Tracinski

Send comments or suggestions to tracinski@realclearpolitics.com.

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